Smart Solutions to FOIA Problems

We have learned through both our mediation services and agency assessment programs that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to administering a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program. Agencies process different kinds of requests for vastly different records, and each agency faces its own challenges. For this reason, a practice that works for a small independent agency that processes only a few hundred requests a year might not work for a department that processes several thousands or hundreds of thousands of requests.

As we assess agency compliance, we work to tailor our recommendations to the agency. Our four published agency assessments include nearly 50 recommendations ranging from short-term and easy-to-implement suggestions to those that are longer-term and a heavier lift. During our assessments, we also take care to note the smart solutions that agencies have developed for themselves.  Below are just some of the smart practices we noted in the four reports we published to date.

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Our assessments have also helped to highlight some great communications practices. For example, acknowledgement letters from the Office of General Counsel (OGC) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) let requesters know that they can check on the status of their request by telephone or email. OGC has also posted a sample FOIA request to its website—a simple step that helps requesters understand what they need to submit, and could help reduce the number of incomplete requests. FOIA processors in NARA’s Special Access and FOIA unit actively work with requesters to narrow requests while the Coast Guard helps requesters understand the process better by including in its responses a list of the search terms it used. We also noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency includes in its acknowledgment letters information about the requester’s position in the agency’s queue; this information helps requesters understand why there might be a delay in the agency’s response.

Do you have a smart FOIA solution or a good communication practice that you would like to share? Let us know in the comments!

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