Reflections on the July 27 Chief FOIA Officer Council Meeting

Panel discussion during the Chief FOIA Officers Council Meeting on July 27, 2017 in the William G. McGowan Theater. Photo by Jeffrey Reed.

Those who follow the news on FOIA are likely already aware of last week’s Chief FOIA Officers Council meeting hosted by NARA in McGowan Theater. The meeting included a panel discussion of ways that agencies, OGIS and FOIA requesters can better work together. What follows are a few observations from the presentations from my fellow panelists:

  1. We are in a new era of FOIA: We heard from several panelists and members of the audience that FOIA’s star is rising—the number of requests to agencies across the government grows each year, the number of litigations have also grown significantly, and a new generation of journalists and researchers is harnessing the power of this important tool. Agencies need to be mindful of the expectations of these new requesters who are technology savvy and customer service focused.
  2. Relationships are everything: Agencies agree that repeat FOIA requesters are a valuable opportunity. Many requesters file a number of requests to a single agency over time, and treating such requesters as respected colleagues, and fostering productive and positive communications, can strengthen that relationship and lead to better requests down the line. Agencies are working hard to make themselves available to discuss requests and answer questions through FOIA requester service centers and FOIA Public Liaisons.
  3. Knowledge is power: Increased knowledge leads to better requests. FOIA requesters on the panel and in the audience described the types of information that helps them make better requests, including records management and destruction schedules, categories of records, and detailed information about the exemptions applied to withheld records.

We at OGIS hope that this will be the first of many constructive conversations between agencies and FOIA requesters. Thanks to those who presented and commented—we appreciate your great ideas.

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