The Importance of Quality Requester Services: Roles and Responsibilities of FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons
The Department of Justice has long emphasized the importance of agencies working with FOIA requesters "in a spirit of cooperation." Two of the established ways that agencies interact with the public during the FOIA request process are through their FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons. These bodies were originally required to be established by Executive Order 13,392, 70 Fed. Reg. 75373 (Dec. 14, 2015), and their existence was later codified by the OPEN Government Act of 2007, Pub. L. No. 110-175, 121 Stat. 2524. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-185, 130 Stat. 538, reinforced the important role played by FOIA Public Liaisons, and by extension FOIA Requester Service Centers, providing more opportunities for engagement during additional stages of the FOIA process.
Agency FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons serve a vital role in providing helpful and timely explanations of the FOIA process to members of the public. This guidance provides an overview of the roles and responsibilities of both these critical resources.
FOIA Requester Service Centers
FOIA Requester Service Centers typically serve as the first point of contact at agencies for any requester (or potential requester) who has a question about how the FOIA works. Such questions can range from very general inquiries about the kinds of records maintained at the agency, to more specific questions directly related to a request that has already been made. Depending on the size of their FOIA operations, agencies may need to designate multiple employees to serve as their FOIA Requester Service Center. Moreover, decentralized agencies with several components are likely to need a dedicated FOIA Requester Service Center for each component. The staff of the FOIA Requester Service Center is typically made up of FOIA professionals who handle initial requests made to the agency. Indeed, agencies may designate their entire initial request staff to serve as the FOIA Requester Service Center.
The FOIA Requester Service Centers are intended to be a helpful source of information about the FOIA and how it is administered at each agency. There are many available resources to assist FOIA Requester Service Centers in answering inquiries. These include each agency’s:
- FOIA Reference Guide,
- FOIA Regulations, and
- FOIA website.
In addition, the government-wide FOIA website, FOIA.gov, provides a wealth of information about the FOIA for each agency and can serve as a ready source of information that can be utilized by FOIA Requester Service Center personnel.
Even before a request is made, the FOIA Requester Service Center should be able to assist members of the public by:
- identifying sources of information that is already posted and available, thereby potentially obviating the need to make a FOIA request in the first instance;
- informing potential requesters about the types of records maintained by the agency (or agency component) and providing suggestions for formulating requests;
- describing the agency’s various processing tracks and providing the average processing times for the various tracks; and
- answering questions about expedited processing standards and the FOIA’s fee provisions.
Once a member of the public has made a request to the agency, the FOIA Requester Service Center should stand ready to provide information about the status of that request, including an estimated date of completion. Agencies may elect to have the analyst assigned to the request serve in the capacity of the FOIA Requester Service Center and provide information about its status directly to the requester. OIP has issued guidance to agencies about providing an estimated completion date. As detailed in that guidance, agencies should make a reasonable judgment as to when they believe processing will be complete, based upon what remains to be done in a given case, including conducting any necessary consultations.
In short, the FOIA Requester Service Center must be ready to assist the public in understanding all aspects of the FOIA and how it works at their agency.
FOIA Public Liaisons
“FOIA Public Liaisons shall report to the agency Chief FOIA Officer and shall serve as supervisory officials to whom a [FOIA] requester . . . can raise concerns about the service the requester has received from the FOIA Requester Center, following an initial response from the FOIA Requester Center Staff. FOIA Public Liaisons shall be responsible for assisting in reducing delays, increasing transparency and understanding of requests’ current status, and assisting in the resolution of disputes.” 5 U.S.C § 552(l) (2012).
As detailed in the statute, FOIA Public Liaisons are supervisory officials charged with three over-arching duties:
- assisting in reducing delays,
- increasing transparency and understanding of the status of requests, and
- assisting in the resolution of disputes.
The FOIA also assigns two specific responsibilities to FOIA Public Liaisons.
- When “unusual circumstances” exist and an agency provides the requester with an opportunity to limit the scope of the request or to arrange an alternative time for processing, agencies must make their FOIA Public Liaison available to assist in the process. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(B)(ii).
- When processing is completed and agencies issue their response, they must notify requesters of their right to seek assistance from the FOIA Public Liaison. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(A)(i)(II), (III)(bb).
While both FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons provide information and assistance to requesters, by design they are two distinct entities. As originally conceived in Executive Order 13392, FOIA Public Liaisons “shall serve as supervisory officials to whom a FOIA requester can raise concerns about the service the FOIA requester has received from the Center, following an initial response from the Center Staff.” Exec. Order No. 13392, Sec. 2(c)(ii). Thus, FOIA Requester Service Centers are intended to be the first place where the public can go to get information about the FOIA generally or about a specific request. The FOIA Public Liaison is intended to supervise the Center and ensure a “service-oriented response to FOIA requests and FOIA-related inquiries.” Id. Decentralized agencies may have multiple FOIA Public Liaisons who, in turn, report as appropriate to the Chief FOIA Officer.
In addition to supervising the FOIA Requester Service Center, the responsibilities of FOIA Public Liaisons include both assisting individual requesters at various, designated points throughout the request process, and working more systemically to reduce delays.
As to working with individual requesters, two of the specific duties of the FOIA Public Liaison – increasing understanding of the status of requests, and assisting in narrowing requests when “unusual circumstances” exist – require the Liaison to be able to explain how requests are managed and tracked. Just as the FOIA Requester Service Center might do, the Liaison should be able to offer suggestions for limiting or altering the scope of a request so that it can be processed more quickly. As the request moves through the system, the FOIA Requester Service Center should be able to provide information as to the request’s status, but the FOIA Public Liaison should also be available to answer any questions about that status. Then, once a determination is made on the request and a response letter is sent, the FOIA Public Liaison must be available and able to explain the agency’s decision to any requester who has questions about it. This could include providing an explanation of the FOIA’s exemptions and the reasons why some information is protected from release. Through all these interactions with requesters, FOIA Public Liaisons can increase understanding of the entirety of the FOIA process and resolve – or avoid –disputes.
FOIA Public Liaisons also have an overarching responsibility to work to reduce delays. There are multiple ways to approach this issue, both systemically and for any individual request. As to individual requests, FOIA Public Liaisons, along with their FOIA Requester Service Centers or the analyst assigned to the request in the first instance, have opportunities at several touchpoints in the lifecycle of the request where steps can be taken that will reduce delay. At the beginning of the process, the scope of the request sets the stage for the amount of time that will be needed to handle it. As processing commences, the number and types of searches that are necessary to locate responsive records will impact the time needed. As responsive documents are identified, if consultations are needed, that is yet another factor that implicates time. At all of these stages of the process, FOIA Public Liaisons, with the assistance of the FOIA Requester Service Centers, can collaborate with requesters to identify strategies and approaches to reduce the time needed to respond to the request.
At a more systemic level, FOIA Public Liaisons can undertake a number of activities to help improve timeliness in their FOIA operations. These can range from:
- conducting self-assessments to identify areas where processes could be streamlined,
- maximizing use of technology to facilitate processing of records,
- utilizing processing metrics to stay on top of incoming requests,
- regularly training and engaging with staff, and
- publicizing proactive disclosures that might meet the public’s need for information in the absence of a request.
OIP has published guidance on reducing backlogs and improving timeliness that can be used by FOIA Public Liaisons, as well as a self-assessment toolkit to assist in analyzing an agency’s entire FOIA program.
Both FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons provide an important service to the public, allowing citizens to directly engage with agency FOIA Offices regarding questions they have about the FOIA. In order to ensure that the public is aware of how to reach these resources, it is important that agencies maintain updated contact information for their FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons. Agencies should regularly review, and update, as needed, the contact information that appears on the agency’s own FOIA website, including in its FOIA Reference Guide, and the information that displays on the government-wide FOIA website, FOIA.gov.
As is evident from their duties, the FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons should be easy for requesters to reach. For phone lines, agencies should ensure that requesters are able to leave messages when agency FOIA personnel are not immediately available to answer calls. Agencies should strive to return any call or e-mail to the FOIA Requester Service Center within 24-hours.
Importance of Good Communication
At the center of all this work by both FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons is good communication. Engaging with FOIA requesters effectively can greatly improve FOIA administration. OIP has issued multiple guidance articles addressing good communication with FOIA requesters. In our 2010 guidance, we stressed the importance of:
- Providing requesters with the point of contact for information about their request,
- Making it easy to discuss the scope and status of a request, and
- Having a process to make interim responses.
That guidance was expanded upon in 2013, with an emphasis given to:
- Communicating electronically with requesters as the default,
- Providing links to public information to facilitate access,
- Making it easy to narrow requests, and
- Providing detailed information on FOIA fee estimates.
Additional guidance addressed the topic of status inquiries, including:
- Providing individualized tracking numbers,
- Providing both the date of receipt and an estimated date of completion to requesters who asked for status, and
- Explaining the FOIA process or any delays in processing when providing status updates.
Collectively, this guidance emphasizes that communication with requesters should be courteous, appropriate, service-oriented, easy, prompt, helpful, and cooperative.
FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons must be prepared to answer inquiries about their agency’s FOIA administration in general and about any given FOIA request in particular. Before a request is even made, to after it is completed, there are multiple opportunities to engage with requesters. These conversations can range from discussions about whether already-posted information could satisfy the request, to the framing of any request that is ultimately made, to discussions about the status of the request, and an explanation of the final determination that is made. FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons are the key personnel who engage in these communications for the overall benefit of FOIA administration.