This Guidance was issued as a part of the 2017 Summary and Assessment of Agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports
OIP Guidance for Further Improvement Based on
2017 Chief FOIA Officer Report Review and Assessment
Continuing to Focus on Reducing the Age of Pending Requests and Improving Processing Times
As the government continues to receive more and more requests every year the challenge of reducing the overall number of requests in the backlog becomes greater as well. This past fiscal year, the government overall received a record high of nearly 800,000 requests. Due to the significant increases in incoming requests, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, sixty percent of the medium and high-volume agencies that reported backlog increases did so despite processing more requests than they had in the prior year. While agencies should continue to strive for backlog reduction, the reality is that these efforts will always be impacted by the fluctuations in the number of incoming requests that agencies face from year to year. Accordingly, agencies should continue to manage their backlogs strategically, focusing on improving the number of requests processed, decreasing average processing times, and reducing the age of their backlogs.
By prioritizing the oldest requests, agencies can ensure that the age of pending requests continues to improve. In their 2017 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, 47% of medium and high-volume agencies reported closing their ten oldest requests from FY 2015 during FY 2016. As has been the case for several years, while many agencies had success with meeting this milestone, others were not able to do so. For any agency that did not meet this milestone, implementing best practices, such as actively tracking the status of the oldest requests and regularly following up on pending consultations, can help ensure that these older, often more complex, requests continue to move forward to completion.
In addition to reducing the age of pending requests, agencies should also continue to focus on reducing simple track processing times to within twenty working days or less. Half of all medium and high-volume agencies reported processing simple requests within twenty days. As we have emphasized in previous guidance, agencies with higher average processing times should examine their processing procedures to identify areas for greater efficiency. In conjunction with prioritizing older requests, by working to respond to simple requests quickly, agencies can strategically manage their backlogs in light of the high volumes of requests they continue to receive and process.
Updating FOIA Reference Guides
The FOIA has long required agencies to make publicly available upon request “reference material or a guide for requesting records or information from the agency.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(g). Many agencies made their FOIA reference guides available online and the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 amended the FOIA to require agencies to do so. In their 2017 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, 65/66 medium and high-volume agencies provided a link to their FOIA reference guide.
Reference guides should be easy for the public to understand and can link to any other information that would be helpful to a requester. While the information in a reference guide may also be located elsewhere on an agency website, compiling it into one document allows requesters to gain a complete overview of the FOIA process. For example, the DOJ’s FOIA Reference Guide consolidates information that can be found across the Department’s websites into one discrete document to allow for easier access and distribution. We encourage all agencies to continuously review and update their reference guides to ensure they are accurate and easy to locate.
Posting Raw Data from Fiscal Year 2016 Annual FOIA Reports
Yet another new requirement of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 concerns the raw data that makes up the content of agency Annual FOIA Reports. Previously, agencies were required to make that raw data available upon request, but with the recent amendments to the FOIA agencies are now required to post the raw data electronically so that it is available for public inspection in an electronic format. Many items covered in the 2017 CFO Report Assessment were based on data from the FY 2016 Annual FOIA Reports. Agencies have posted the human and machine-readable versions of their Annual FOIA Reports on their websites. Additionally, all agency Annual Report data is available to view and download on FOIA.gov. In light of the new requirement for agencies to post their raw data proactively, OIP directs agencies to our Guidance on the New Requirements for Agency Annual FOIA Reports. In next year’s Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines, OIP will ask agencies to provide the link to their raw data posting. Many agencies have already posted their raw data and we encourage all agencies to do so promptly.