Today we present an interview with Alexis Graves, FOIA Officer at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a member of the 2020-2022 FOIA Advisory Committee. This is part of a series of posts on the Committee, whose members are FOIA experts from inside and outside of government and who are appointed by the Archivist of the United States.
Why did you seek to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee?
The committee members in the 2020-2022 term are dedicated to executing, among other things, many of the great process-related recommendations made by members of the previous terms. Accordingly, this allows me the opportunity to collaborate with my esteemed colleagues to provide meaningful change to the way analysts review and process records requests but more importantly, the way FOIA is managed and administered across the federal government.
What do you hope to accomplish?
Recognizing that change can be a challenge in light of recurring budget deficits and the fluctuating demands on the administration of FOIA, I hope to ensure that the recommendations and solutions developed by the Committee are ones that are attainable regardless of an agency’s funding level.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
Budget is always the biggest challenge. The complexity and number of records requests seem to be steadily increasing while funding in most cases is either stagnant or declining. Compounding this issue, is the unpredictability factor, specifically, the inability to know from year to year whether a particular agency action is going to trigger an influx of records requests. All of these variables make it challenging for agency FOIA officers to accurately formulate a budget.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.
I recently received the warmest hand-written thank you note from a requester. He had called frantic one Friday evening. He needed immediate assistance initiating a records request about a time-sensitive issue relating to one of the Department’s loan programs. He explained that he had limited Internet access and therefore wouldn’t be able to initiate or receive records electronically. Luckily, we were able to come up with a work around that allowed him to quickly receive the records he needed. I will always remember his graciousness during our initial and subsequent calls. He, like so many others, are my reason for why I absolutely love the work I do.