Skip to main content
Blog Post

Sunshine Week Meeting of the IT Working Group Focuses on Leveraging Technology for FOIA Administration

The 2009 FOIA Guidelines were the first Department of Justice FOIA Guidelines to specifically highlight the importance of utilizing modern technology in FOIA administration. To support this directive, in 2010 OIP formed the FOIA IT Working Group, which continues to serve as a forum for agencies to discuss the application of technology to the administration of the FOIA. OIP reconvened the working group to commemorate Sunshine Week 2016 with a discussion from a panel of experts focused on the importance of leadership support and collaboration between technology and FOIA professionals.

Over the last six years, the IT Working Group has discussed a range of topics, including providing records in electronic formats, improvements in agency FOIA websites, and the use of advanced document processing tools. Moderated by Director Melanie Ann Pustay, the Sunshine Week meeting facilitated a vibrant discussion with a panel of experts who included: Ron Bewtra, Chief Technology Officer at the Department of Justice; Doug Hibbard, Senior Advisor to the Initial Request Staff with the Office of Information Policy; Jennifer Matis, Assistant Counsel for the Office of Government Ethics (OGE); and Timothy Mallon, Systems Engineer and Software Developer at OGE.

The key theme that emerged throughout the nearly two-hour meeting was the need for collaboration between technology and FOIA professionals and the importance of leadership and a clear vision for how technology can support the agency's mission. Each panelist brought unique insights to the conversation, beginning with Mr. Bewtra who discussed his role as the chief technologist for the Justice Department. In his remarks, Mr. Bewtra focused on how his team works with program experts to ensure component missions are fully supported through the utilization of the right technology. Mr. Bewtra emphasized the importance of communication and a clear understanding of the mission between program and technology experts. As the Department as a whole seeks to maximize the value of agency-wide technology investments, collaboration with program offices continues to be an important practice for Mr. Bewtra in order to determine where available technology could be used and what new projects to take on.

Mr. Hibbard then discussed the various efforts undertaken to incorporate advanced technology tools into the FOIA process at OIP – specifically the application of e-Discovery applications for document review. Mr. Hibbard’s remarks focused on the collaboration between OIP and program offices within the Department to develop pilot programs and business cases for the use of such tools to process FOIA requests. He explained how the implementation of these tools required coordination with technology professionals, testing by OIP staff, the development of unique workflows, and training. As emphasized by Mr. Hibbard, all of these efforts at OIP were possible because of the Office’s ability to articulate the business case for use of these tools and the support for its mission by the Department’s technology staff.

The team from OGE discussed a similar, collaborative experience, but focused on different applications and scales of technology that they identified for OGE's needs. Whereas the panelists from the Department of Justice discussed the benefits of agency-wide applications and how OIP made the case for using available technology, the OGE team discussed how a one-on-one interaction at a small agency led to the development of a home-grown case management system. Ms. Matis discussed how the clear needs of the FOIA office and personal interaction with Mr. Mallon allowed the team to collaborate on the development of their new case management tool, creating efficiencies that were not previously available.

In addition to discussing the need for collaboration, all four panelists discussed the importance of finding the right tool or set of tools for the task required. For Mr. Bewtra, this meant having a clearly articulated set of requirements when looking to acquire a new tool or leverage an existing one. Mr. Hibbard discussed that while efficiencies have been gained in document review through the use of e-Discovery tools, these tools are not always the answer for all requests, and for some requests it may be more efficient to use other methods or tools for processing. Finally, the OGE team discussed how building their new case management tool on an expandable technology platform meant that new features could be added as needs arose, allowing them to iterate within their current tool instead of searching for a new one.

The panel had a very engaging discussion with attendees regarding various topics throughout the event. Given the strong interest in these discussions, OIP will be looking for ways to continue the dialogue at events in the future. Additionally, as agencies continue to explore new ways to harness technology in their administration of the FOIA we invite them to let us know so that future meetings of the FOIA IT Working Group will be convened in order to share the latest developments across the government.

Updated April 1, 2016