FOIA Public Liaisons: Managing the Process

On Tuesday June 21, OGIS presented another round of dispute resolution skills training to FOIA professionals and requesters, this time at the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) Training Series conference.

While no two training sessions are exactly alike, Tuesday’s session was particularly notable for the interesting discussion about what FOIA professionals actually do. The resulting list included the following roles:

  • Investigator: It may not be clear at first which department within an agency might have the requested records. The FOIA professional may need to do quite a bit of legwork before determining which program office might maintain responsive documents.
  • Educator: In some cases, the agency staff person responsible for the requested records may not understand his or her obligations under FOIA. It is up to the FOIA professional to teach them. Likewise, some FOIA requesters may not understand the FOIA process, so the FOIA professional may need to provide insight into how the administrative process works.
  • Translator: Many requests — particularly large, complex requests — may involve multiple departments. FOIA professionals must interpret the request in a way that multiple subject matter experts can understand.
  • Communicator: FOIA professionals provide requesters with updates about the status of requests, and this news is not always good. They also manage communications between the requester (who may be asked to refine or narrow his or her requests) and agency staff. Communications skills are important!

Generating a list such as this reveals that FOIA professionals do much more than simply fulfill requests — we refer to the highly specialized role that they play within the agency as being a process manager. Successful process management demands that FOIA professionals understand the interests outside the agency (those of the requester) and inside the agency (those of agency colleagues, as well as pertinent regulations and processes) and be able to balance the two while moving requests through the agency.

We often say that OGIS advocates for neither the requester nor the Federal agency — our office advocates for FOIA. FOIA professionals must strike a similar balance, though it may be tougher for them to be perceived as neutral to requesters.