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FOIA Requester Roundtable Wrap-Up

Representatives from several Open Government organizations gathered with agency FOIA professionals at the latest FOIA Requester Roundtable held April 25, 2012, at OIP.   There was a lively exchange of views that centered on the topic of document searches and the challenges that agencies often face in collecting and identifying material responsive to FOIA requests. While these seasoned FOIA requesters understood that the task of locating records responsive to a request was often not as simple as entering a search term into a computer, the challenges agency personnel can face in conducting document searches are often not well understood.  With the wide-spread use of e-mail, document searches are far more laborious today than they were in the past.  The meeting provided an opportunity for me and the other agency representatives to walk the requesters through the often complicated process of locating records, particularly e-mail records, from multiple records custodians, and then identifying those records that are responsive to a given request.  We also discussed the challenges involved in manually identifying all the duplicate e-mails typically contained in multiple e-mail chains and discussed various approaches to handling duplicates.    To tackle these time-consuming aspects of FOIA processing, I briefed the requesters on a pilot program that OIP is pursuing to harness technology to gain efficiencies in FOIA processing.  The pilot is part of the Department's Open Government Plan.  For the pilot OIP is teaming with the Civil Division to leverage the powerful e-discovery software that is used in the litigation context to conduct sophisticated electronic searches of e-mails to winnow down potentially responsive e-mail, and to then electronically de-duplicate them.   We believe that the time saved on those pre-processing stages can be put to far better use by FOIA professionals on substantive review of the material for disclosability.  OIP's pilot is designed to build the business case for use of the e-discovery tools in the FOIA context.  OIP believes this holds great promise to make the FOIA process faster.  We will be talking about the pilot in more detail in future posts. The requesters expressed their interest in hearing from agency personnel during the course of the processing of their requests, particularly when there is an unexpected delay.  OIP has issued guidance on the importance of good communication with requesters and this can be particularly useful when a request will involve extensive searches, involving multiple custodians, and various records locations.  By working together it is possible for the agency FOIA professional and the requester to collaborate on a plan for responding to a complex search.  OIP, together with the Office of Government Information Services, hosts these Requester Roundtables several times a year.  The next roundtable will be held July 25th.    For further information about all of OIP's upcoming training and outreach check our Training page.
Updated August 6, 2014