Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Michael Heise

Today we present an interview with Michael Heise, Assistant Legal Counsel and FOIA Public Liaison for the FOIA Division in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 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?

As an employee of a small agency with a large number of FOIA requests a year, I thought it would be valuable for the FOIA Advisory Committee to have my agency’s perspective.

What do you hope to accomplish from this experience? 

I want to learn from my colleagues on the FOIA Advisory Committee — agency staffers and requesters  —about what concerns are top of mind. I also want to listen to the concerns of agency staff and requesters not on the Committee, to the extent possible, in an effort to understand what’s top of mind to them.  Finally, I want to participate in drafting recommendations to the Archivist that will reflect what I have learned during my term at the Committee concerning FOIA issues raised by agency staff and the requester community.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

Speaking for myself, FOIA’s biggest challenge is resource allocation. As the statute is currently written, any requester anywhere can make a FOIA request to any agency and that agency has just 20 working days (sometimes 30) to fully process that request. FOIA requests come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s nothing in the statute that compels amending the request if that request proves to be voluminous. Although many agencies can process their FOIA requests within the statutory timeframe, many cannot.

Consequently, FOIA backlogs are real for many agencies, and I am sure many members of the requester community have been waiting for some of their requests to be fully processed for longer than the statutory timeframe. Unless the statute itself is changed to reflect the reality that not every FOIA request can be processed in 20 or 30 working days, backlogs will continue to exist unless Congress seriously takes up the issue of resource allocation with respect to the FOIA.  In my personal opinion, FOIA’s one-size-fits-all approach sounds great in theory, but in practice it is tantamount to an unfunded mandate to federal agencies unless serious consideration is given by Congress toward resource allocation or amending the statute with respect to voluminous requests.

Tell us about your favorite FOIA experience. 

My favorite FOIA experience is my current job as the Assistant Legal Counsel for EEOC’s FOIA Division.  I work with a great group of FOIA attorneys and Government Information Specialists, and our agency’s Chief FOIA Officer is one of the best!