Throughout 2011, OGIS observed a recurring concept: Federal agencies are succeeding through internal collaboration. This “team approach” to government operations promotes efficiency, reduces redundancy, and helps an agency successfully meet its statutory mandate.
One area where teamwork is particularly important is records management; we’ve observed that many agencies are getting wise to this fact. President Obama’s November 28, 2011, Memorandum, titled “Presidential Memorandum — Managing Government Records,” launched an executive branch-wide effort to modernize records management policies and practices to minimize costs and ultimately improve FOIA operations. Agencies must submit a report to the Archivist of the United States and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) describing plans for improving and maintaining their records management programs within 120 days. OMB and the Archivist, along with the Associate Attorney General, will issue a Records Management Directive setting forth specific steps agencies must take to reform and improve records management policies and practices. Replete throughout this Memorandum is the concept of “a team approach” to implementing the initiative both within and between agencies, including at the highest levels of government.
Improving records management with an eye toward FOIA is an observed OGIS best practice. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) combined FOIA and records management operations in 2010. Creating the Office of FOIA and Records Management Services allowed SEC professionals to focus efforts on issues unique to FOIA, such as locating records and providing resources and advocacy to improve records management practices, according to the SEC’s 2011 Chief FOIA Officer Report.
The team approach can also best serve the agency and the public when applied to the area of proactive disclosures. FOIA requires agencies to make certain categories of records available for public inspection and copying without waiting to receive a FOIA request. In addition, the President’s FOIA Memorandum directs agencies to take affirmative steps to make information public without waiting for a FOIA request. One great way an agency can identify information for proactive disclosure is through collaboration between agency FOIA professionals, IT staff, primary program offices and/or subject matter experts, Public and Legislative Affairs Offices, and General Counsels. The public can also be an important part of this team by providing valuable feedback as to the type of information it would like to see agencies post online. This team approach leads to ready identification of relevant information and faster approval for online posting and avoids duplicating efforts. Better still, it’s efficient and cost-effective.
OGIS receives many cases involving FOIA requests for access to government databases. Working on several different cases with different agencies, we’ve seen the team approach turn what started as a daunting endeavor into a manageable process, and how failing to use the team approach can drag out a FOIA request for months or even years. These requests can be overwhelming to FOIA professionals — they involve huge amounts of data in unfamiliar formats and use terms completely foreign in the traditional FOIA context (data dictionary, anyone?). Getting agency IT staff looped in from the start on these requests can help bridge that knowledge gap and ensure everyone works together to prepare the data for disclosure as efficiently as possible. This team should also include representatives from the agency’s legal staff, the relevant program office(s) and possibly the Public and/or Legislative Affairs Offices. Teaming up with the agency’s records management staff is also a good practice as a general rule, and especially so when involving electronic records because they can present unique issues that need to be promptly addressed and resolved.
As we start a new year, the time is right to create a new game plan — especially if that new game plan can create efficiencies and reduce costs. We are always looking for best practices, so we would love to hear your suggestions and your experiences with “the team approach” to FOIA.