Improving Timeliness and Reducing Backlogs
The Department’s FOIA Guidelines emphasize the importance of timeliness when responding to requests. In the 2020 Assessment, OIP continued to capture agencies' efforts in this area by assessing metrics such as: the average processing time for simple requests, reductions in backlogs, the percentage of the backlogs in relation to incoming requests and appeals, and the closure of agencies' ten oldest requests, appeals, and consultations.
Continuing to focus on the metrics above, agencies with an average processing time for simple requests of more than twenty days should reexamine their FOIA process and strive to meet the twenty day standard. Likewise, agencies with large backlogs should also continue to work on achieving backlog reduction and closing their oldest requests in the upcoming fiscal years. OIP encourages agencies to assess their FOIA programs with an eye toward developing short and long term plans for achieving sustained improvements in timeliness and backlogs. Agencies can use OIP’s Self-Assessment Toolkit as a resource for identifying potential pain points in their FOIA process and developing fulsome backlog reduction plans. OIP acknowledges that many agencies are currently experiencing new challenges in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those agencies should continue to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of their FOIA program and consider the steps highlighted in OIP’s May 2020 Guidance for Agency FOIA Administration in Light of COVID-19 Impacts:
- Using Clear and Effective Communication with Requesters
- Strategically Managing Requests Using Multitrack Processing and Interim Releases
- Focusing on Proactive Disclosures
- Reassessing and Leveraging Technology
- Beyond Request Processing, Considering Other Ways to Maximize Efficiency
- Utilizing Available Government-wide DOJ Resources
Expedited Processing Procedures
OIP’s December 2014 Guidance on Ensuring Timely Determinations on Requests for Expedited Processing emphasizes the importance of adjudicating requests for expedited processing within ten calendar days. For the 2020 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, while most agencies met this milestone, many agencies' average time to adjudicate requests for expedited processing exceeds ten days. In some cases, the average adjudication time is several days or more higher than the required ten calendar days. OIP asked agencies that did not adjudicate requests for expedited processing within ten days to provide plans for improvement. Agencies are encouraged to follow up on these plans throughout the year to ensure that they are meeting the FOIA's requirement for responding to requests for expedition. Additionally, agencies should be mindful of the following steps from OIP’s 2014 guidance:
- Screen all FOIA requests at the time of receipt to determine whether expedited processing has been requested.
- Be alert to requests for expedition that may be made after the initial request is submitted.
- Establish clear coordination procedures with other offices that are involved in making the determination on a request for expedited processing.
Agencies are encouraged to review the full text of the guidance and to review their procedures for identifying and adjudicating requests for expedited processing to ensure that they consistently adjudicating requests for expedition in accordance with the FOIA's time limits.