Today we present an interview with Catrina Pavlik-Keenan, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Deputy Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer and a member of the 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 who are appointed by the Archivist of the United States.
What prompted you to seek appointment to the FOIA Advisory Committee?
I felt it was important for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to have a seat at the table and engage in some of the Committee’s projects and conversations because DHS processes a very large portion of federal FOIA requests. I have had several colleagues participate in FOIA Advisory Committee terms over the years and I have found many of the conversations and recommendations useful.
What do you hope to accomplish from this experience?
I hope to gain a better understanding of the current challenges and successes being experienced by both the government and requester communities. I think coming together in this setting is a great opportunity to not only voice concerns and share experiences, but to then work together on solutions. I hope that my almost 30 years of FOIA experience will positively contribute to these conversations and really bring us closer to not only finding more common ground with the requester community, but also help to create a positive, maybe innovative, path forward. It is important to me that both FOIA personnel and requesters can be involved long term and build mutual trust.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
I believe one of the biggest challenges currently across federal agencies is being able to demonstrate the value of properly planning for and handling FOIA requests. It is important to make sure your agency has the support and infrastructure in place to properly handle FOIAs. Part of my role throughout the years has been to effectively champion the idea that properly resourcing the FOIA program helps to ensure that the agency doesn’t lose time or money on other mission critical work as a result of failure to comply with FOIA’s statutory requirements. I think a common misconception is that the FOIA office is sitting on a FOIA request. In actuality, the FOIA office wants to close requests as quickly as possible, but may lack the infrastructure or resources to respond as quickly as the office would like.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA experience
My favorite experience is ongoing and it’s the people. Over my career I have had the most incredible people working for and with me. I have watched countless professionals who once worked for me, many with no FOIA experience, move on to FOIA positions all over the government. There is no better feeling than seeing people I trained or mentored grow and succeed. I have maintained relationships with past employees who are now either working for or running FOIA offices across many federal departments, including: Agriculture, Army and Navy, Defense, Education, Interior, Justice, Transportation, the Treasury, and Veterans Administration as well as the National Regulatory Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many DHS components. I know people in leadership positions who still seek my advice or whom I can now call to seek advice. There is an overwhelming feeling of fulfillment watching a career that you love become the career path your colleagues also pursue.