Ensuring Effective Portal Communication with Requesters: Even When They’re on Vacation!

Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter fishing on August 26, 1978. National Archives Identifier 180949.

OGIS has observed recently that agencies are increasingly using portals to send response letters and records to requesters. OGIS applauds this approach as portals are faster than U.S. postal mail and more secure than email. However, OGIS encourages agencies to consider the length of time requesters have to access these letters and responsive records. We recently heard from a requester who was on vacation and when they returned, they were unable to access the agency’s FOIA response letter and responsive records which had been available in the portal for 10 days.

OGIS is aware that many portals provide access for a limited number of days. In many instances, this time limit does not allow a requester adequate time to retrieve the information. For example, a requester could be traveling, be ill, or be given another project that takes priority. For any of these reasons, the requester may not be able to monitor or respond to correspondence for several weeks. We encourage FOIA offices, when writing policy and procedures, to include procedures for addressing these scenarios. Unrealistic expiration dates can leave FOIA requesters feeling frustrated. OGIS also strongly suggests that agencies communicate timeline expectations including the timeframe that they have to access materials on the portal  and explain what to do if they miss that window.

FOIA Public Liaisons, who have the responsibility of “increasing transparency and understanding of the status of requests, and assisting in the resolution of disputes,” (5 USC 552(l)), would be an excellent point of contact. This also aligns with the Office of Information Policy (OIP) guidance about the roles and responsibilities of requester service centers, which emphasizes the importance of facilitating access through good communication.