In 2007 Congress added a provision into the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that requires agencies to provide a requester with an estimated date by which the agency expects to complete work on a request, when the requester asks for one. This requirement helps the requester better understand the agency’s FOIA process and gives the requester a more accurate picture of when he/she will receive a response.
We’ve previously discussed how important it is for an agency to provide an estimated date of completion if the agency wants to avoid a lawsuit and we’ve even given agencies a couple of tips on how they can come up with an estimated date of completion.
While it is clear that providing estimated dates of completion is a good idea – both from a compliance and customer service standpoint – we understand that actually coming up with a date can feel like a moving target. Further, we hear from some FOIA professionals that they are hesitant to provide an estimated date of completion because requesters might treat the estimate like a firm deadline.
We understand this concern, and we have observed situations in which requesters interpreted estimated completion dates as deadlines. However, we have also observed that by providing a requester with an explanation of the factors that impact processing time, that requester develops a more realistic expectation of when he/she might receive a response .
Lots of factors go into how long it takes to process a request, including not only the complexity and possible number of responsive records to the request in question, but also the complexity and number of possible responsive documents to requests that are ahead of the request in question in the agency’s queue. In order to help he requester understand that an estimate is just that – an estimate—OGIS includes the following explanation in our correspondence responding to estimated date of completion cases:
Please know that this date roughly estimates how long it will take the agency to close requests ahead of your in the queue and complete work on your request. The actual date of completion might be before or after this estimate based on the complexity of the requests in the agency’s queue.
If you like this language, please feel free to use it in your communication with requesters. Have any other suggestions or tips to handle requests for estimated dates of completion? Let us know in the comments section!