OIP Guidance: Standard Operating Procedures for FOIA Offices
Documenting Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) administration is a key element of ensuring that agencies are effectively implementing the law. Recognizing the important role SOPs can have in ensuring agencies have effective systems in place for responding to requests, in 2021 agencies were asked to report in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports on whether they had documented FOIA SOPs, and if so, how often they reviewed and updated those SOPs. Agencies that did not have an up-to-date SOP were asked if they had plans to develop them. Overall, sixty-three high and medium volume agencies reported that they maintained FOIA SOPs, with a range of descriptions on the form these SOPs take and how often they are updated. Based on OIP’s review of the 2021 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, new guidance was issued encouraging agencies to maintain and regularly update FOIA SOPs. Agencies were encouraged to use OIP’s Self-Assessment Toolkit as a resource for developing their SOPs. As noted in OIP’s Guidance for Further Improvement Based on 2021 Chief FOIA Officer Report Review and Assessment, maintaining written SOPs can improve the consistency and quality of an agency’s FOIA process. SOPs that document step-by-step procedures and incorporate employee best practices related to FOIA processing can standardize and institutionalize such practices, improving FOIA administration overall.
Following-up on the guidance issued in 2021, OIP again asked agencies to describe efforts to maintain FOIA SOPs in their 2022 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. During this reporting period, 79% of assessed agencies reported maintaining SOPs and 10% reported having a plan to create SOPs. Building on OIP’s survey of agencies in the 2021 and 2022 Chief FOIA Officer Reports and OIP’s 2021 guidance, this guidance further details the importance of maintaining SOPs and provides several considerations for agencies as they develop and update their own SOPs.
What Are Standard Operating Procedures?
Generally, SOPs document an agency’s routine, internal processes for administering the FOIA. They also preserve institutional knowledge on effectively implementing this important law. SOPs should differ from agencies’ FOIA regulations and FOIA Reference Guides that detail overall requirements. SOPs put these overall requirements into practice by setting forth step-by-step instructions on how to carry out routine operations, such as handling requests from start-to-finish, identifying and making proactive disclosures, and maintaining a FOIA website.
Benefits of Standard Operating Procedures for Agency FOIA Administration
Standardization of FOIA processing within the agency helps ensure that an agency’s handling of requests and appeals is consistent with the FOIA, agency regulations, policy guidance, best practices, and the agency’s institutional knowledge. Documenting the most effective means of achieving each step of the FOIA process in SOPs can eliminate inefficiencies and unnecessary steps in the processing of requests and appeals or other common tasks. Written SOPs break down complex FOIA processes into a sequence of smaller actions and include specific steps necessary to achieve desired outcomes. For instance, many agencies use various types of technologies at different points in the FOIA process that can exponentially increase efficiencies when used effectively. SOPs enable personnel to maximize the benefits of these technologies at each stage of the FOIA process. Overall, SOPs facilitate greater consistency and efficiency in processing FOIA requests and appeals, and can ultimately reduce request processing times, backlogs, appeal remands, and litigation.
Benefits for Agency Employees
SOPs are a significant resource for new, experienced, and supervisory agency employees. Employee access to SOPs can facilitate effective employee communication, reduce learning curves for FOIA processes, and lead to increased productivity, in turn, helping to improve employee satisfaction and retention. Generally, SOPs can serve as a daily resource to help employees properly implement the FOIA.
SOPs can facilitate more effective communication between managers and employees by providing an easy reference for how to complete various tasks. This allows employees’ questions to be more focused or nuanced and managers’ time to be spent on time sensitive, complex, or other priorities. SOPs also help streamline the onboarding of incoming FOIA professionals who are being trained on FOIA processes within the agency. Using SOPs as part of the training process encourages new employees to refer to the SOPs to clarify or confirm their understanding, saving time and minimizing the need for additional follow-up after training is completed. SOPs that clearly outline tasks and provide tangible metrics to gauge performance also reinforce employee accountability.
Experienced FOIA professionals may consult SOPs for key information as needed or when duties are shifted and employees need to quickly familiarize themselves with a particular process. SOPs can also be a helpful reference for non-FOIA professionals who need to understand the agency’s FOIA processing procedures, for instance, if the employee may be asked to search their records or otherwise provide input to FOIA personnel.
Additionally, SOPs can contribute to greater employee job satisfaction and improved retention. SOPs provide a clear, practical understanding of what is expected of FOIA professionals. They help employees easily identify what needs to be done at each stage of the FOIA process and how to successfully complete those steps, in turn helping employees succeed in their roles. This, in combination with effective communication and increased productivity discussed above, can support an overall positive and productive work environment.
Additional Benefits for Agencies and Requesters
As a result of the increased efficiency described above, requesters can receive responses to their requests more quickly and agencies are better positioned to reduce backlogs. Agencies and requesters also benefit from greater consistency in how requests are processed. For example, if an agency’s SOPs incorporate proactive communication at various points throughout the FOIA process, such as reaching out to clarify large requests or to provide interim responses, such practices are more likely to occur regardless of the specific employee handling the requests. These types of practices have proven to be effective in narrowing the scope of requests and the amount of material agencies must process. SOPs also facilitate greater consistency and accuracy in final responses to requests, which can result in more satisfied requesters who do not find the need to file an administrative appeal or lawsuit. Additionally, if an agency’s SOPs delineate processes for identifying and posting proactive disclosures, it helps ensure that such disclosures are made routinely and enables requesters to access records they are seeking without the need for a FOIA request.
Considerations for Agency FOIA Standard Operating Procedures
Agencies are encouraged to review the following considerations in developing FOIA SOPs and ensuring they remain up to date.
Content of Agency FOIA SOPs
- Involve key stakeholders in determining contents of SOPs. A collaborative approach involving supervisors and line personnel helps create buy-in from those who will be using the SOP, and ensures the SOP is comprehensive and practical. SOPs also present an opportunity for FOIA offices to break down their processes and evaluate whether each step is as efficient as possible and make any adjustments accordingly. Agencies should consider whether multiple employees should draft the entire SOP or if certain sections should be drafted by subject-matter experts. For instance, appeals team members and supervisors should be involved in determining topics to include in the FOIA Appeals SOP, what the most useful format will be for those who will use the document, and what steps and guidance are included for each aspect of the Appeals process.
- Do not reinvent the wheel. Agencies should consult existing material to help establish a framework for their SOPs. Agencies may gather existing information from various internal sources or FOIA SOPs posted by other agencies. OIP recommends that agency SOPs cover topics outlined in the Self-Assessment Toolkit. Including the topics outlined in the Self-Assessment Toolkit can create consistency across agency SOPs while allowing for agency-specific requirements.
- Reference other useful internal and external FOIA resources. Where applicable within the SOP, agency SOPs should link to the agency's FOIA Regulations, FOIA Reference Guide, applicable statutes, agency directives, OIP Guidance, or other source materials for ease of reference.
- Document important tasks that may occur infrequently or that may only involve one person or a small group of people. Annual and quarterly FOIA reporting requirements are good examples of processes that occur once or a few times per year, but are useful to have documented in SOPs.
- Tailor SOPs based on the nature of the agency's processing procedures. Agency FOIA programs vary in size and complexity across the government. Therefore, agencies may take different approaches depending on their needs. Decentralized agencies may have one SOP that applies to all components; however, if a component’s processing procedures differ from the other components, SOPs should be component-specific. Agency FOIA offices also vary in terms of their structures, which may influence how they tailor their SOPs. For instance, FOIA offices that have FOIA professionals who process requests from start to finish may put all SOPs into one large document, while offices that have specialized teams for different stages of the FOIA process may have team-specific SOPs.
Format of Agency FOIA SOPs
- SOPs should be written clearly and comprehensively. SOPs should serve as practical guides for any agency employee in completing a particular task related to the agency’s FOIA process. Agencies should use plain language to explain a process, rather than jargon.
- Provide visual aids. Process flow charts can provide the user with an understanding of how different parts of the FOIA process operate and where each step fits in the larger picture. Screenshots from applications used for various processes can also help employees clearly understand and complete the necessary steps accurately.
- Use a format that allows for easy modification. This ensures SOPs can be regularly updated and easily edited.
- SOPs should be user-friendly. Documents that are searchable and have tables of contents or indexes make information easier to locate. It may be helpful to organize the information into subfolders or chapters to allow for ease of review. Agencies should delineate different topics or sections with clear headers and sub-headings. They should also use bulleted checklists or numbered lists to explain actions in sequence.
Implementing and Maintaining Agency FOIA SOPs
- Test the SOPs before implementation. Agencies should have one or more FOIA staff members walk through each step of the SOP and provide feedback on sections that may need clarification. Testing ensures all the steps for each process are accurately documented and easy to follow for frequent and infrequent users. Agencies should make any necessary adjustments and edits based on feedback.
- SOPs are living documents. While SOPs are meant to standardize processes, they should also be flexible. As improved methods of completing tasks are identified, agencies should integrate them into the SOPs for implementation. They should update SOPs as needed based on changes to the FOIA process, policy, or law. At a minimum, SOPs should be reviewed annually. Agencies should consider assigning a specific point of contact to ensure SOPs are updated regularly.
- Encourage staff to suggest updates to SOPs. As new methods or approaches are discovered to improve the FOIA process, FOIA staff should be empowered to provide input on how to institutionalize these methods by incorporating them into the SOPs.
Developing and maintaining updated FOIA SOPs will serve both agencies and requesters as part of an effective FOIA administration. By taking the time upfront to develop SOPs, agencies will benefit from retained institutional knowledge, consistency in FOIA responses, and greater efficiency overall. Agencies are encouraged to review this guidance as they are developing or updating their SOPs and can reach out to OIP with any questions.