Spring Cleaning: Take a fresh look at your FOIA program

An Early Spring Cleaner

Spring is here and as we open windows to let in fresh air and sunshine, tidy up around the house, and tackle projects we put off during the winter, why not bring that same mindset to your FOIA program?

Since OGIS opened its doors in 2009, we’ve worked with agencies and requesters on thousands of requests for assistance with FOIA matters, conducted 14 agency compliance assessments, nine targeted FOIA issue assessments, and offered FOIA Dispute Resolution Skills training to hundreds of FOIA professionals. We lead and manage the federal FOIA Advisory Committee and, with the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice, we co-chair the Chief FOIA Officers Council. Needless to say, we have a lot of fresh ideas for ways to tidy up agency FOIA programs.

We offer the following for agencies as we head into spring and the second half of the fiscal year.

  1. Consider asking OGIS to assess your FOIA program. Our assessments are holistic, collaborative reviews of a FOIA program in which we interview employees and officials of the agency, review FOIA request and appeal files, conduct an online survey of FOIA processors, and study FOIA litigation against the agency, among other activities. At the end of each assessment, we publish a report that highlights best practices and areas for improvement. Our recommendations center around management, technology and communications. We can tailor our assessment to fit your needs and can even assess just a portion of your FOIA program. Want to know more? Contact OGIS at ogis@nara.gov with the subject line “OGIS Assessment.” 
  1. Review and revise your FOIA communications for plain language. Take a fresh look at your FOIA website, template letters, and other communications to ensure they are simply written, relevant, readable and useful to requesters. Visit PlainLanguage.gov or consult your agency’s Plain Language point of contact for more information on writing for your requesters.

  2. Take advantage of training and professional development opportunities. In April and the coming months, OGIS and OIP will host a variety of events, including best practices workshops, meetings, and webinars. We hope you’ll join us for an upcoming event and consider subscribing to our blog, and following us on Twitter and Eventbrite.

  3. As you clean up your backlog, limit the use of “still-interested” letters and phone calls. As we have previously noted, agencies should follow OIP guidance and limit the use of “still interested inquiries” to situations where agencies have a reasonable basis to determine that the requester’s interest in the records may have changed.

  4. Keep your records nice and neat. As we have explained previously, FOIA and records management programs are an essential partnership. Get to know your agency’s records management staff and familiarize yourself with key records schedules. 

There you have it! As we enter the second half of FY 2021, a good spring cleaning will prepare you to meet the challenges ahead.