While Sunshine Week provides many opportunities to celebrate open government achievements, it also provides the perfect context to reflect upon changes that could improve FOIA. Think of it as a little spring cleaning.
Since opening in September 2009, we’ve worked with agencies and requesters on more than 1,500 FOIA matters, giving us a unique perspective and informing the following suggestions for tidying up the FOIA process.
Training: FOIA is everybody’s responsibility. Some agencies get it, but others don’t. We think it would make a big difference if everyone — even senior leadership like those in the Senior Executive Service and political appointees — receive training in FOIA when they join an agency. Coupled with more intensive training for key FOIA staff members, this could go a long way toward the culture change we are trying to achieve.
Standardizing FOIA web pages: agency web pages reflect that different agencies have different missions. While variety is the spice of life, it can make a FOIA requester’s job more difficult. We’d like to see standardized FOIA web pages across agencies — this includes reading rooms — to make it easier for requesters to find what they are looking for. One way that this could happen is if the government develops a simple, customizable template for FOIA pages.
Support from the top: agency leadership should recognize the importance of FOIA and support it. Some agencies are already way ahead here. We think that agencies could demonstrate a commitment to FOIA by communicating though senior official memos and agency all-hands meetings.
Creating a FOIA career track: it might be difficult for those outside the government to fully understand, but one way to galvanize an agency’s work in a certain area is to create a professional path. FOIA professionals have gone without such a career path for decades. We applaud the Office of Personnel Management’s recent announcement of the creation of the Government Information Series. We’d like to see this commitment expanded with the creation of a certification program for FOIA professionals and the addition of FOIA performance standards into performance plans for agency leadership.
So that’s our spring cleaning wish list. We’d love to hear your suggested FOIA improvements as well.