Since OGIS opened in 2009, we’ve noticed that some FOIA Public Liaisons (FPLs) are not entirely clear about their role. The job title, created by Executive Order 13392 in December 2005, was codified in the OPEN Government Act of 2007, (5 U.S.C. § 552 (a)(6)(B)(ii) and (l)). One provision says that FPL’s are responsible for “reducing delays, increasing transparency and understanding of the status of requests, and assisting in the resolution of disputes” [subsection (l)] and the other says that the FPL will aid the FOIA requester in modifying the scope of a request and agreeing to an alternative time frame for the agency to respond, as well as (again) assisting in resolving any disputes.
Most FPLs wear many hats. In OGIS’s dispute resolution skills classes, we ask FPLs and FOIA professionals to tell us about the different jobs they do every day. Some of the examples are:
- Status reporter
- FOIA traffic “cop”
- Customer service rep
- Public relations specialist
- Records manager
- FOIA processor
- Mind reader
While some of their roles seem pretty humorous or far-fetched, FPLs who embrace and understand their roles keep in mind that the emphasis on customer service needs to be achieved at every level and for every job in the Federal government. So even if FPLs do not think that something is their responsibility, they are doing their jobs when they find out who is supposed to do that thing and keep the ball rolling.
Here are some tips we have heard that help clarify what FPLs can do:
Be accessible. OGIS has observed that one of the key issues that requesters have with agencies is lack of customer service and the inability to reach FOIA staff. Contact information should be in letters, in emails, and online – and someone should respond when the requester reaches out. This may seem obvious; however, we constantly hear from requesters that if they do have a contact number for an FPL, he or she does not answer the phone or return their calls or emails. Give requesters a detailed status of their request and answer their questions or concerns. A requester should not come away from an FPL encounter more confused than she or he was before.
Resolve disputes. If a requester has a dispute regarding his or her FOIA request, the FPL should be the first place that she or he can go to attempt to resolve the dispute within the agency, without OGIS getting involved. When a customer comes to OGIS for assistance with a case, the first question we ask is “Have you contacted the FOIA Public Liaison?” If he or she has not, we suggest trying that first. The FPL should be available to try to reduce delays by assisting to resolve disputes. When FPLs cooperate, disputes can be resolved more quickly and even prevented.
Be involved. Ensure FPLs are an active player in the FOIA process within the agency. By being the point of contact, FPLs are able to hear first-hand the issues that requesters are experiencing with the process. FPLs who notice impediments within the agency, or know of ways to change things, should feel empowered to address them! Congress designated FPLs to be supervisory officials so that changes can be made to improve FOIA and transparency.
Do what you can to improve the FOIA process. Maybe that means listening to a requester vent. Sometimes it means repeatedly explaining to a requester the way requests are processed in your agency, or giving an estimated date of completion. In the end, building a rapport with requesters will go a long way.
In turn, OGIS urges requesters to take the time to understand the different hats that FOIA Public Liaisons wear every day. Keep in mind that if he or she is the sole point of contact for an agency, there are many other requesters contacting him or her for assistance as well. Try to be patient. Many FPLs also have other positions within their agency so FPL duties are only a portion of their responsibilities.
Have additional ideas about what FPLs should or should not be doing? Let us know.