We receive a number of requests for assistance from FOIA requesters seeking an estimated completion date for their delayed FOIA requests. When we contact agencies for the estimated completion date, we sometimes get some pretty strong pushback. That’s understandable, since nobody wants to go on record making a promise when lots of variables beyond his/her control could slow the process. But not only is providing an estimated completion date good customer service, since 2007, it’s also the law.
So what’s a FOIA professional faced with devising an estimated completion date to do? There are a few approaches one might take to identifying a date:
- Learn from the past: take a look at your agency’s annual FOIA reports from the past few years to see response time periods for previous requests (FOIA.gov makes it easy to see a few years at a time).
- Consider the category: Does your agency group requests into different queues? Considering the normal processing time of each category—simple versus complex, for example—may get you closer to a reasonable range for the request in question.
- Average it out: Consider the average amount of time it’s taken your agency to respond to requests in the same category.
- Get (a little) lost in the details: Spend a little time getting to know the request. Is it similar to any recent requests your agency has processed?
The most important thing to remember when you are estimating a completion date is the fact that it is an estimate. While you want some basis in fact for your estimate, it should not be confused with a deadline.
Sometimes, despite your best effort to estimate a completion date based in fact, that date will come and go with your agency still working away on the FOIA request. What now? The most important thing to do is to reach out to your customer with a new estimated completion date. It is possible that this will be a difficult conversation, so have your good communication skills ready. Be sure to talk to the FOIA processer about how it is going, because any new information you can gather about the request may help you even better refine an estimated completion date. Let us know your ideas for estimating a completion date.