As we wrote about in our Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Annual Report, our agency compliance assessment process recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to administering FOIA—each agency’s records are unique and as such, management of the FOIA process differs. We have observed that successful FOIA programs share three general characteristics: they manage their resources appropriately; they use technology effectively; and they communicate well with requesters.
Based on our agency FOIA compliance assessment reports and or analysis of the results of the FOIA Questions included in the 2016 Records Management Self-Assessment Survey (RMSA), today we want to highlight a few things agencies are doing to improve the administration of their FOIA programs:
- Use Good Management Techniques. Good management practices ensure staff have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. Based on responses to the 2016 RMSA, we noted that most agencies report that they use basic management tools in their FOIA operations, including having Standard Operating Procedures, and using performance-based measures. In response to our FY 2016 assessment report of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency let us know that establishing performance metrics for FOIA analysts and case closure goals for the office resulted in reducing its backlog in the four months since the metrics were put into place. In FY 2017, we also noted that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used performance measures to monitor and increase staff productivity, which contributed to ICE’s successful effort to virtually eliminate its backlog.
- Win Leadership Support. In our FY 2017 assessment reports of ICE and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), we noted that leadership support is critical to the agencies’ successful FOIA operations. At ICE, leadership’s support for increased funding substantially contributed to the agency’s backlog reduction efforts. Leadership support at CFPB also contributed to the agency’s ability to respond to most FOIA requests within the law’s 20-day response deadline.
- Make Good Investments in Technology. In our FY 2017 assessments, we saw that investments in technology to improve the FOIA process were successful at both ICE and CFPB. We noted that ICE invested in technologies and leveraged the expertise of contractors hired to reduce the agency’s backlog to improve and streamline the FOIA process. Similarly, we observed that CFPB provided the FOIA program with access to technologies that improved reporting, and e-discovery tools that made it easier for the FOIA staff to locate responsive records and discuss the scope of the request. Additionally, in our FY 2016 assessment report CBP attributed part of its successful backlog reduction to a move to a FOIA tracking system that agency FOIA managers thought was better suited to handle the large volume of requests that CBP receives each year.
- Have Sufficient Information Technology (IT) Support. In out FY 2017 assessment of CFPB, we documented the importance of sufficient IT support to CFPB’s ability to respond to FOIA requests in a timely fashion. On the other hand, in FY 2016 we documented issues that the United States Secret Service experienced with its FOIA tracking and processing system, which were significant enough to require some FOIA processors to use tape to hand-redact documents.
- Communicate well with requesters. Since the launch of our compliance program, we have observed that good communication helps ensure a smooth FOIA process—and helps to prevent disputes that may otherwise lead to litigation. Some of the notable practices we have observed are:
- Following Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP) guidance regarding limiting the use of “still interested” letters;
- Providing requesters with plain language explanations of any exemptions used;
- Clearly describing any additional materials requesters need to provide before a request can be processed; and
- Providing estimated dates of completion when requested.
We look forward to learning more about how agencies are improving their administration of FOIA as we continue to grow our compliance program and conduct assessments of new agencies.