The Importance of FOIA Training for FOIA Professionals and Agency Program Personnel
As the Department has long declared, “FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.” Accordingly, critical to any successful FOIA administration is that all agency personnel, including FOIA professionals, have adequate training resources available to them to understand the current state of the law and their important role in achieving FOIA’s mission. Agency FOIA professionals should receive substantive FOIA training every year and agencies should continue to take steps to ensure all new personnel receive adequate training or briefings on FOIA when onboarded. Of course, these types of trainings were traditionally offered in-person, which was made difficult by the pandemic. However, in the 2021 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, many agencies described efforts to provide the workforce with digital training resources such as online courses and virtual training conferences. OIP also quickly transitioned to providing government-wide virtual trainings with nearly 5,000 participants registered last year alone.
Moving forward, agencies are encouraged to leverage digital training resources and virtual conferences as a means of reaching a wider audience. Further, agencies that need further assistance with FOIA training should utilize the training provided by OIP or contact OIP directly to coordinate training specific to the needs of their agency. For more information about OIP's upcoming training events and how to attend please visit the Training page of OIP’s website.
Planning Ahead and Leveraging Lessons Learned to Reduce Backlogs and Processing Times
The Department's 2021 Assessment of Agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports continues to reflect agencies' efforts in reducing backlogs and the age of their requests, appeals, and consultations. Agencies that experienced backlog increases during Fiscal Year 2020 or that were unable to close their ten oldest requests, appeals, or consultations should continue to focus on these key metrics.
During the past year, agencies' FOIA programs continued to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic to varying degrees. At the same time, many agencies have implemented new technology to support their FOIA programs and developed new workflows and practices. In addition to the guidance issued by OIP in 2020, several Best Practices Workshops have been held on these topics. All of these best practices are detailed on the Best Practices Workshop page of OIP’s website.
Additionally, as described in the 2021 Summary and Assessment, agencies provided a range of examples on how they improved their FOIA process this past year. For instance, many agencies used technology in new ways because of maximum telework to facilitate greater efficiencies.
Beyond the traditional tools used in FOIA administration, several agencies are exploring more sophisticated technology that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and has great potential for reducing the search and review burden on agency FOIA offices. Last year, OIP hosted an AI 101 Workshop for FOIA featuring the Chief FOIA Officers Council Technology Committee. The Chief FOIA Officers Council Technology Committee continues to serve as a great resource for agencies exploring their FOIA technology needs. As discussed above, several agencies also began leveraging remote training platforms and e-Learning training modules. Agencies also leveraged proactive disclosures and increased communication with requesters as a means of meeting public demand. As workplace policies continue to evolve in response to the pandemic, agencies are encouraged to leverage all these lessons learned and best practices in identifying potential areas to achieve greater efficiency moving forward.
Standard Operating Procedures
Having Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) can improve the consistency and quality of a of an agencies FOIA process. SOPs can also serve as a significant resource for incoming FOIA professionals and a way to preserve much of the agency’s institutional knowledge on all aspects of administering the FOIA from how to handle requests from start-to-finish, to identifying and making proactive disclosures, to maintaining a FOIA website. Overall, sixty-three high and medium volume agencies reported that they maintained FOIA SOPs last year with a range of descriptions on the form these SOPs take and how often they are updated. OIP encourages all agencies to develop and regularly maintain SOPs that will assist in implementing the FOIA’s requirements with a high level of consistency and quality. Agencies may use OIP’s Self-Assessment Toolkit as a resource when creating or updating SOPs. More importantly, agencies should regularly update SOPs to reflect changes in policy or law. To ensure SOPs are up-to-date, OIP encourages agencies to review their SOP at least annually.
Updating Agency FOIA Regulations
The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-185, 130 Stat. 538, required all agencies to update their FOIA regulations within 180 days. While a majority of agencies have published updated regulations in the Federal Register, several agencies are still in progress to fulfilling this requirement. OIP encourages all agencies that have not updated their regulations in accordance with the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 to do so as soon as feasible. Agencies are encouraged to consult OIP's Guidance for Agency FOIA Regulations and accompanying Template that includes sample regulatory language.