Today we present an interview with Dione Stearns, Assistant General Counsel for Information at the Federal Trade Commission 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?
Government transparency matters, and I dedicated my professional career to the development of FOIA best practices for implementing the FOIA statute. The 2020-2022 term Committee members contain both internal and external FOIA stakeholders – i.e., government openness proponents – who endeavor to foster an environment for members to share innovative ideas and make recommendations to improve FOIA customers’ interaction, from request submission to a final FOIA determination.
What do you hope to accomplish?
The FOIA arena is constantly in flux, whether addressing an uptick in filed FOIA requests or an increase in the demand for transparency, this area of law is never stagnant. My collective committee work aims to identify, develop, and recommend workable solutions for any agency’s day-to-day FOIA administration regardless of budget restraint. I also aspire to continue cultivating the relationships between internal and external FOIA customers to enhance both sides’ experience in this legal arena and understanding of FOIA requirements.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
FOIA stakeholders’ perception of FOIA remains the biggest challenge. Whether the perception is held by the drafters of the FOIA laws, FOIA requesters, or internal government employees, managing the differing FOIA expectations of each group is a hurdle for many FOIA professionals. Equally, timing is a huge challenge. While addressing perceptions, FOIA professionals—often limited in staff numbers and financial resources—also strive to process FOIA requests efficiently and expeditiously. Many work hours are spent educating internal and external FOIA stakeholders on the FOIA process. Furthermore, year-to-year, the number of FOIA requests continue to escalate while agencies’ FOIA budgets remain unchanged.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.
I recently served as an instructor at a FOIA conference. Attendees consisted of FOIA professionals and FOIA requesters with varying degrees of FOIA experience. One conference attendee, with limited exposure to FOIA, peppered me with FOIA questions during my presentation. At the conclusion of my presentation, the inquisitive requester thanked me for explaining the application of a specific FOIA exemption to him in a sensible and meaningful way.