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Successes in FOIA Administration: Part II – Effective Systems for Responding to Requests

Over the last five years, agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports have provided detailed descriptions of agency efforts to improve FOIA administration in five key areas addressed by Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines.  As a part of a series which started during Sunshine Week 2014, OIP continues to highlight some of the successes in these five key areas as reported by agencies in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.   

Ensuring Agencies Have Effective Systems for Responding To Requests

As a part of this year’s guidelines for agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies were asked to provide information on the steps “taken to ensure that [the] management of [the agency’s] FOIA program is effective and efficient.”  In their 2014 reports, agencies provided details on various efforts related to personnel, processing procedures and requester services.

A key component of an agency having an effective system for responding to requests is the quality of its FOIA professionals who are on the frontlines of processing the increasing numbers of requests that are received each year.  Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the importance of the work performed by agency FOIA professionals. In recognition of their important role, and in an effort to professionalize the government's FOIA and Privacy Act workforce, on March 9, 2012, the Office of Personnel Management announced the creation of a new job category specifically for FOIA and Privacy Act professionals called the Government Information Series.  In their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, many agencies reported that they had converted the majority, if not all, of their eligible FOIA staff to the new job series including the Departments of Justice, Labor, and Interior, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Agencies that had not yet converted all of their eligible FOIA personnel to the new job series provided plans in their report for doing so in the upcoming year. 

For the 2014 reports, agencies were also asked to report on if they were able to adjudicate requests for expedited processing in an average of ten calendar days or less during Fiscal Year 2013. In response, several agencies reported that they did not receive any requests for expedited processing, but of the agencies that did adjudicate such requests, fifty-one including thirteen of the fifteen cabinet departments reported that they were able to do so within an average of ten calendar days or less.  Notably, the three agencies that adjudicated the most requests for expedited processing during Fiscal Year 2013, the Departments of Homeland Security (1,480), Justice (1,017), and Defense (1,014), all reported an average of five days or less.  For those agencies that did not maintain an average of ten days or less, many outlined aggressive plans in their reports for improvement during Fiscal Year 2014.

In line with OIP’s previously released guidance on procedures for processing consultations and referrals, many agencies highlighted additional steps they have taken to make the handling of such items more efficient and effective.  A number of agencies reported taking affirmative steps to create efficiencies by entering into agreements with other agencies or agency components on how to process records that are a common source of consultations or referrals.  For example, at the Department of Justice, the Executive Office for Immigration Review continued to work under a longstanding agreement with the Department of Homeland Security on the processing of immigration records, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reached an agreement within the Intelligence Community on the processing of certain information.  Other agencies reported employing shared document environments to allow for more efficient means of collaborating on material that required consultation.  Notably, at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, ninety-one of the ninety-nine agencies subject to the FOIA reported having less than ten consultations pending at their agency, with seventy-four reporting that they had none pending.

This year’s reports also detailed over-arching steps agencies have undertaken to ensure that their FOIA systems operate efficiently and effectively, including:

  • The General Services Administration consolidating and centralizing its FOIA program during the reporting period, thereby creating a single point of intake for all agency FOIA requests.  As a result of this restructuring, the agnecy expects to have increased accountability and quality control in its administration of the FOIA, as well as improved communication with FOIA requesters.
  • The Department of the Treasury implemented the next phase of its goFOIA electronic system, which has improved its reporting abilities, allowing agency leadership to view more accurate and detailed weekly and monthly FOIA reports that they can now use to more accurately gauge FOIA performance throughout the year.
  • Like a number of other agencies, the FOIA office at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began conducting a case-by-case review of its FOIA administration to determine any trends contributing toward delays and to identify any areas where efficiencies could help the agency reduce its request backlog.

As a part of their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies also overwhelmingly noted that they communicate with requesters through electronic means whenever possible and that they are informing the public of the mediation services offered by the Office of Government Information Services in their administrative appeal responses. 

These are just some examples of the concrete steps agencies have taken to ensure that they have an effective and efficient system in place for responding to FOIA requests.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for even more examples. 

Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information on the Department’s continuing efforts to improve both transparency and understanding of the FOIA.

You can read the previous post in this series on FOIA Post (Part I).

Updated August 14, 2014