Those of us in the FOIA and Privacy fields have long desired to “professionalize” the Government information access field. Traditionally, FOIA and Privacy professionals in the Federal government have had no consistent job titles or descriptions and no clear career path; instead, agencies have taken a patchwork approach, squeezing FOIA and Privacy professionals into sometimes unrelated areas. Hardly appropriate treatment for those who uphold the ideals of transparency and democracy!
All of this changed in March 2012 when, as a result of the hard work of some dedicated advocates, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) created the Government Information Specialist Job Series, 0306. This series includes positions responsible for administering, analyzing, supervising, or performing work involved in establishing, disseminating or managing Government information. Government Information Specialists formulate policy, advise agency management, and ensure compliance with Federal laws governing the flow of information. The work also involves safeguarding Government information while supporting accountability and transparency. In other words, Government Information Specialists do the work that makes FOIA work.
OPM issued guidance directing agencies to implement this series with a March 9, 2013 deadline. While creating this series is ultimately good news for everyone, it forced agencies to quickly rethink how they categorize FOIA professionals. OPM largely left it up to agencies to decide how to implement the new job series; since each agency is structured a little differently, this allowed agencies to decide what works best for them.
We at OGIS recognized early on that professionalizing the field is an important step in improving the FOIA process and we were eager to work with anyone who wanted to advance this effort. In the course of our work as the FOIA Ombudsman, we regularly hear from agencies and requesters about FOIA trends and issues. After hearing from many different agencies that there were some issues with the implementation of the job series, OGIS offered to host an inter-agency and external working group (WG). The WG began meeting in October 2012 to explore the duties, specialties and/or titles that should be included under this job series and to share best practices and lessons learned. The WG also is working to educate and collaborate with other agencies and human resource offices about ways to use the job series to professionalize the career and recommend implementation of the series.
The WG is co-chaired by representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy and includes representatives from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State, as well as the Food and Drug Administration. The requester community is represented by the American Society of Access Professionals, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, OpentheGovenment.org, Sunshine in Government Initiative, Access Reports, Inc., and several attorneys in private practice.
As of November 2012, there were 27 agencies with a total of 229 professionals in the series. While this is progress, we recognize that there is more to do. The WG is completing a set of core competencies for Government Information Specialists in the areas of analytical skills, communications, organization and team building. We hope that this information can be used by agency human resource professionals to create consistent position descriptions that will attract quality candidates to this new job series.
While the implementation deadline is quickly approaching, the WG anticipates that our work will continue long after March 9, 2013. We hope that we will become a resource to help human resources professionals and the FOIA and Privacy communities collaborate to ensure the success and the best possible implementation of the series.
As agencies prepare for the deadline, we encourage them to consider the following best practices:
Collaborate. The job series exists as a result of collaboration between people across the government and interested members of the public. FOIA and Privacy professionals must continue to work together with the human resource professionals within their agencies to implement the series. The WG welcomes additional agencies and those in the requester community to continue the conversation. Working together can only help the process.
Communicate. We’ve heard of agencies that are simply changing FOIA professionals’ job titles without discussing those changes and other agencies that haven’t yet begun implementing the series. If this is happening at your agency, speak up! Talk to your FOIA and Privacy managers about your interest in the series and determine the implementation status for your agency. The FOIA and Privacy managers should then communicate to the human resource professionals in your agency to ensure there is an understanding and agreement in place for either hiring or converting those responsible for government information to the new job series.
Outreach. The success of the Government Information Specialist job series depends on how successful we are at communicating the importance of FOIA and the expertise that processing FOIA and Privacy Act requests requires. OGIS and the WG will continue to beat the drum for FOIA and Privacy professionals; if you want to know how you can be involved with the outreach effort, or if you have other ideas or feedback, please contact us.