Upcoming FOIA Requester Roundtable: Estimated Completion Dates

Providing estimated completion dates – and following up with customers if the estimate changes – helps reduce FOIA bottlenecks. (NARA number 545884)
Providing estimated completion dates – and following up with customers if the estimate changes – helps reduce FOIA bottlenecks. (NARA number 545884)

We’ve written before about the importance of providing estimated completion dates to requesters — not only is it good customer service, but since 2007, it’s the law. Unfortunately, OGIS still hears from many requesters with delayed requests who have not heard when they might expect a response. In those cases, OGIS contacts the agency, talks with the FOIA staff about this particular requirement, and in most cases, provides the requester with an estimated completion date. (Sometimes, an agency declines to provide an estimated date of completion, despite the statutory responsibility to do so.)

The fact that OGIS plays this role — helping requesters obtain the estimated completion date to which they are entitled — may be frustrating at times, but it is not surprising. After all, the requirement is a relatively new part of the law, and we hear regularly from agencies about how challenging it can be to come up with such an estimate. We understand that challenge.

Unfortunately, we also hear back sometimes from requesters for whom the estimated completion date that OGIS provided from the agency has passed without a response.  When this happens OGIS re-opens the case, contacts the agency, asks for a new estimated completion date, and shares that with the requester. This results in a lot of wasted time and in many instances, broken trust between the requester and the agency. While estimated completion dates are in no way legally binding, it is important to remember that they naturally create an expectation in the requester’s mind.

So how can agencies both provide estimated completion dates (which, after all, are only estimates), and preserve a relationship with the requester? In our dispute resolution skills training program, we spend time talking about the process manager role played by FOIA professionals. One important part of being a process manager is keeping track of deadlines and making sure that key stakeholders remain informed — the requester being the most important stakeholder of all.

We’ve heard from FOIA professionals about the tools they use to help them track estimated completion dates. Some put a meeting on their calendar to remind them to update the requester. We’re told that others are able to keep track of estimated completion dates through their FOIA processing software, and that the software can automatically create letters updating the requester on the status of his/her request. Whether you use a high-tech tool — or simply put a sticky note on your computer screen — we hope that you will remember to keep the requester in the loop as deadlines shift.

If you are interested in learning more about estimated completion dates, we encourage you to attend the next FOIA Requester Roundtable, “Providing Estimated Dates of Completion.” Sponsored by OGIS and the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), the meeting is from 10:00 to noon on Wednesday, January 22 at OIP, 1425 New York Avenue, NW, Suite 11050 in Washington, D.C.

If you are interested in attending, e-mail your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “January Requester Roundtable Registration.” Space for this meeting is limited, so registration is required. You will need a picture ID to enter the building.  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.