The Office of Information Policy (OIP) hosted two virtual workshops last month discussing best practices focused on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) administration during the pandemic for both Intelligence Community (IC) and non-IC community agencies.
During the first virtual event, OIP Director Bobby Talebian and Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) Director Alina Semo moderated a panel discussion with seasoned IC and IC-adjacent FOIA officials: Brent Evitt, Defense Intelligence Agency; Ron Mapp, National Security Agency; Sally Nicholson, Office of the Director of National Intelligence; Michael Seidel, Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Eric Stein, U.S. Department of State.
The panel was attended by more than 200 federal FOIA personnel and highlighted the unique ways in which IC agency FOIA processing has been impacted by pandemic health and safety precautions, owing to each IC agency's unique missions, records, and practices.
Panelists shared that at the start of the pandemic, regular routines, expectations, and goals shifted dramatically and that IC agency FOIA operations were immediately impacted by the inability of staff to congregate together in agency facilities at any one time, impacting FOIA processing of classified records.
Despite the challenges, panelists reported improvement in certain areas of their FOIA programs after incorporating some of the following best practices:
- Ensuring eligible employees are telework-ready in advance of a crisis
- Increasing agency efforts to communicate with the public
- Focusing on what is within your agency's control
- Prioritizing employee safety and well-being
During the second virtual workshop, Chief FOIA Officer Council (CFO) Technology Committee co-chairs Eric Stein and Michael Sarich, Veterans Health Administration, moderated a panel discussion among nine FOIA officials from eight agencies.
The workshop covered how federal agencies adapted to changes in workplace precautions in the early days of the pandemic, what they are doing currently, and discussed what the future may hold for FOIA administration post-pandemic.
Some highlights of the best practices shared at the event include:
- Regularly engaging individuals and teams to foster collaboration and open communication in a maximum telework environment
- Rethinking and reevaluating aspects of the FOIA process as circumstances evolve
- Diversifying FOIA processing and technology skill sets through recruitment and training
- Strengthening communication with requesters
- Leaning into and leaning on new and existing technology resources within and outside your agency
A detailed list of the best practices discussed at these and other OIP workshops, and related guidance, can be found on the Best Practices Workshop Series page of OIP's website.
Launched in 2014, the Best Practices Workshop series was designed as a part of the United States’ Second Open Government National Action Plan commitment to modernize FOIA administration. The goal of the series is to improve FOIA processes by leveraging effective strategies from across the government, highlighting successes achieved by agencies, and sharing successful approaches on a wide range of FOIA issues.
We invite you to suggest discussion topics for upcoming Best Practices Workshops, and you can e-mail your suggestions for new workshop topics to DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov (link sends e-mail) using the subject line "Agency Best Practices Workshop Suggestion."