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FOIA Update: Agencies Conduct Specialized Training

FOIA Update
Vol. XII, No. 2

Agencies Conduct Specialized Training

Increasingly, in administering their individual programs under the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies are recognizing the value of specialized training for their FOIA personnel and are conducting such training with noteworthy success.

Beyond the range of FOIA training widely available to all agency employees on a governmentwide basis, many agencies find it valuable to hold specialized FOIA training sessions on an individual agency basis. Such training sessions can focus on the particular types of records that are maintained by an agency, and the FOIA issues that most commonly surround them, as well as on agency-specific internal administrative practices. They also afford an extremely useful interchange among the various FOIA-related components of an agency, especially where an agency gathers both its headquarters and field office FOIA personnel together for an agencywide training session.

The Department of Energy

An agency that has taken good advantage of this training approach is the Department of Energy. In addition to regularly sending its FOIA personnel to governmentwide FOIA training programs, it supplements that instruction with additional FOIA training tailored to its own particular circumstances and needs.

Each year, for several years, the Energy Department has gathered its FOIA personnel for a two- or three-day training session aimed at addressing the FOIA issues that are of particular concern within that agency. It uses a combination of lectures and workshop presentations, with instructors from both inside and outside of the agency, in a setting designed to encourage the free exchange of information and concerns among all participants.

In all, the Energy Department has approximately 100 employees engaged in FOIA-related work at various offices and locations throughout the country. Bringing them all together for a consolidated training session has proven to be an effective and cost-efficient step for the agency.

According to John H. Carter, Director of its Reference and Information Management Division and a strong proponent of such programs, the Energy Department has been very pleased with the results of its specialized training: "Such a training session allows our people to raise absolutely any FOIA-related issue that is of particular concern to them -- to lay anything they want on the table for discussion and high-level attention. They appreciate that and we hope to continue providing such an opportunity."


A similar approach to FOIA training has been followed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for several years, with good results as well. NASA, too, holds an annual training conference for all of its headquarters and regional FOIA personnel, rotating the location among its eight space centers nationwide.

NASA's annual FOIA conferences are regularly attended by approximately 30 agency employees, including the FOIA officers and the legal officer at each of its centers. The program covers two full days, with outside instruction complemented by a heavy emphasis on certain NASA-specific issues such as those related to procurement. Its format is designed to encourage wide-ranging discussions and to promote good working relationships among the agency's FOIA personnel.

In fact, says NASA FOIA Officer Patricia M. Riep, who organizes the annual program, it provides a very important "added benefit" in that it ensures that all of NASA's headquarters and field office FOIA personnel will get to know one another, to be able to "put a face with a voice" when they call each other throughout the year. She recommends such conferences for other agencies, especially those with extensive regional activities.

Other Agencies

Several other federal agencies currently are either conducting or planning such specialized FOIA training programs of their own. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, recently instituted an in-house FOIA training program for its more than 160 employees nationwide who are involved in FOIA work. During the past year, HUD has conducted three consolidated regional training programs for its FOIA personnel, covering the entirety of its regional structure. Through four-day training sessions presented with Justice Department assistance, HUD provided specialized training to almost all of its FOIA personnel nationwide for the first time ever. According to HUD's FOIA Officer, Yvette Magruder, who conducted much of this new training, it could serve as a model for future such training for HUD's many regions.

Likewise, the FOIA Officer at the Department of the Interior, Alexandra Mallus, is planning to provide specialized FOIA training to the more than 100 employees involved in FOIA work within her agency. Inasmuch as the Interior Department is highly decentralized, with an extensive regional and field structure, she says, FOIA training is essential to minimize inconsistencies and to promote uniform FOIA practices throughout the department.

Similar training programs currently are being developed by FOIA officers and training officials at the Department of Education and the Department of Labor.

Governmentwide FOIA Training

In addition to any specialized FOIA training conducted by federal agencies on an individual agency basis, there exists a wide range of FOIA training available to all agency FOIA personnel governmentwide. Major governmentwide FOIA training programs have been conducted for many years by both the Department of Justice and the Office of Personnel Management, as well as through the Graduate School of the Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Justice, through its Office of Legal Education and the Office of Information and Privacy, offers four different levels of FOIA training programs, ranging from introductory-level sessions to advanced seminars on the Act, that provide training to more than a thousand persons each year to meet a continually high demand. Its basic training course for attorneys and access professionals, a two-day program, is held six times each year; the introductory and advanced sessions are each held twice per year. OIP also conducts a half-day "Annual Update Seminar on the FOIA" during the first week of October for any federal employee who needs to be kept up to date on the latest developments under the Act.

On a nationwide basis, the greatest range of training on both the FOIA and the Privacy Act is provided through the regional training structure of the Office of Personnel Management. Operating through five regional training centers around the country, OPM has made relatively low-cost FOIA instruction available to field office FOIA personnel for many years. Despite some cutbacks in overall training resources, several OPM regional centers will be conducting multiple FOIA training programs during the coming fiscal year.

OPM also conducts a symposium on the FOIA and the Privacy Act, through its Government Affairs Institute, in August of each year on Capitol Hill. This year will mark the thirteenth annual offering of this popular two-day program.

The Graduate School of the Department of Agriculture, too, regularly offers multiple FOIA-related courses for federal agency employees in Washington, D.C. It even offers a correspondence course on the FOIA and the Privacy Act through its Correspondence Study Division. For such courses, like those held by OPM, agencies are charged a fee, whereas all Justice Department training programs are offered at no charge. (See "FOIA Training Opportunities" on page eight of FOIA Update.)

Additional training on FOIA subjects and related issues is provided by the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP), which holds an annual three-day symposium on such issues -- including a separate day devoted entirely to business information -- as well as other training sessions during the year.

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Updated August 13, 2014