Key Best Practices and Recommendations From The FOIA Advisory Committee Report

Posted by James Bailey

best practices and recommendations from the FOIA Advisory Committee

In 2014, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) formed the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee to improve Federal Agency FOIA Operations.

The purpose of creating the FOIA Advisory Committee was to explore procedures and methods which will contribute to improving FOIA Operations.

After 2 years of work, the Committee released their Final FOIA Recommendation document this January. The document includes series of recommendations for Federal Agency FOIA Operations.

The aim of these recommendations is to make sure that maximum information is released, both in response to FOIA requests and proactively. They include specific actions to be undertaken and series of best practices to be implemented.

Let’s start with the specific actions FOIA Advisory Committee recommends your agency to undertake in order to improve FOIA Operations.

Committee-Recommended FOIA Specific Actions

In their Final FOIA Recommendation Report, the FOIA Advisory Committee recommends a series of specific actions concerning:

  • Search Technology
  • FOIA Accessibility
  • FOIA Performance Standards

Here are the specific recommended actions across the three segments that agencies should do:

  1. To propose that the Chief FOIA Officers Council and the Chief Information Officers Council study the FOIA technology across agencies, and find the best practices that can be implemented across agencies.
  2. To request the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy to gather detailed information about the specific methods and technologies that agencies use to search their electronic records. The details should be a part of each agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Report.
  3. To suggest that the Federal Acquisition Regulation requires all agencies to provide access to Federal Agency Records. This will help in purchasing decisions for Electronic Records Management Software.
  4. To contribute to the development of standard requirements for FOIA processing tools by making sure that your tools and outputs are Section 508 compliant.
  5. To request that the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) evaluate the methods and actions agencies use in preparing files for posting on agency FOIA reading rooms.
  6. To encourage OGIS to point out issues with the Proactive Disclosure and Section 508 compliance in its report to Congress.
  7. To direct OGIS to assess the use of appropriate performance standards in Federal Employee Appraisal Records, and to recommend plans that ensure compliance with FOIA requirements.

Committee-Recommended Best Practices for FOIA Operations

FOIA Advisory Committee recommended best practices for FOIA operations

The FOIA Advisory Committee recommends your agency to implement series of best practices to improve the compliance and the overall administration of FOIA.

These series of recommendations are aimed to bring improvement in every aspect of the FOIA Process such as:

  1. The Technology used for FOIA Processing
  2. The Management of the FOIA Process
  3. Proactive Disclosure
  4. FOIA  Accessibility

Let’s dive into these recommendations and see how each of them is useful for your agency.

1. Technologies Used For FOIA Processing

FOIA processing is almost impossible without the use of technology to ease the process. The FOIA Advisory Committee came out with a series of recommendations to improve the technologies that agencies use to process FOIA requests.

Here are a few of these recommendations:

  • Create career model for information management. This enables new FOIA/Information Management professionals to get familiar with the process of information governance, privacy and Support Record Management.
  • Contract a Surge Support Staff to rapidly increase responses. By quickly reacting to surges and decreasing backlogs, this surge support staff will eliminate everyday pressure in your FOIA Department.
  • Create Add-Ons to IT Systems for exporting records. This way Federal Agencies will be able to search through and track requests more efficiently. These add-ons will further streamline the FOIA search process.
  • Assign a Project Coordinator to approve search requests within file management systems. This improves quality of searches and reduces time and effort invested in searching and reviewing.
  • Make responding to FOIA requests the key focus of your file management system. This improves the process of responding to FOIA requests and creates a basis for a better system of transparency.
  • Adopt a centralized tracking platform in all FOIA departments, or at least, consolidate to fewer tracking systems. From a technical perspective, this way you standardize the entire FOIA process and simplify the FOIA reporting requirements. Also, this allows your agency to increase the managerial oversight and accountability.
  • Create an in-house system in cases when a COTS/GOTS product doesn’t meet your agency’s needs. The in-house system is very useful because it adapts to your workflow. This feature will save your agency from the trouble of trying to change the workflow to adapt to the system.

2. Management of the FOIA Process

When it comes to improving the Management of the FOIA Process, the FOIA Advisory Committee draws attention to the importance of teamwork, accountability, expanded use of tracks and centralization.

In light of this, the Advisory Committee recommends agencies to:

  • Actively contact and work with requesters. This enables your agency to narrow requests and save resources for processing. It also increases the transparency of the process and increases requesters’
  • Train your FOIA staff for the record-keeping systems you use. This way you provide your employees with the necessary knowledge. This improves staff effectiveness and customer experience.
  • Promote collaboration among employees to ensure that if an employee needs assistance in a particular situation (for instance during periods of leave or peak time) they can get help from a colleague.
  • Form teams based on common strengths. This enables your employees to manage a certain type of request more efficiently thanks to prior experience with the type of request in question.
  • Include Case Closures and Pages Reviewed as part of FOIA staff performance evaluation. This leads to smaller backlogs, and
    encourages your FOIA staff to take responsibility for their performances in completing cases.
  • Track status of requests, ensure visibility and establish protocols to handle delayed requests. This gives requesters a better understanding of the reasons for the delay. Also, it helps you identify areas in the process which are causing a backlog.
  • Separate requests using different workflows for simple, complex, and expedited requests. This ensures quick turnaround of simple requests, which leaves your employees additional time to focus on complex and expedited requests.
  • If purchasing a new email system, look for FOIA complaint email systems. This provides your FOIA staff with a more capable Search functionality, and easier way to export emails throughout your agency.
  • Where appropriate, centralize processing. Centralized processing reduces the time spent coordinating multiple teams. It also increases the collaboration across agencies and enables them to reduce backlogs.

3. Proactive Disclosure

proactive disclosure FOIA Advisory Committee recommendations

Proactive Disclosure plays a vital role in FOIA. With that in mind, the FOIA Advisory Committee makes the following recommendations:

  • Prioritize proactive disclosure for materials that are related to both the establishment and the operations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, such as agendas, coming events, timelines, recordings, transcripts, etc. This creates a fully transparent system and reduces requests for committee information.
  • With necessary privacy reductions, disclose unclassified reports provided to Congress. Proactively releasing these reports also relieve the pressure on the FOIA process.
  • Post all your organization charts and contact information, for all offices. This allows the public to contact federal employees for assistance.
  • Proactively disclose records that are most frequently requested under FOIA (records requested more than 3 times). This saves your agency time, effort and money.
  • Proactively disclose and update your FOIA logs. This enables the public to know which records were requested and released under FOIA and make more specific requests in future.
  • Proactively release declassified material, as much as possible. This unburdens agencies as the needed documents will already be released to the public without anyone submitting an FOIA request.

4. FOIA Accessibility

Being an important factor which increases the public trust in the government accessibility is the primary matter the FOIA Advisory Committee addresses. Concerning this matter the Committee recommends:

  • Enclose documents which currently are not Section 508 compliant to your agency website, and avoid removal of those already posted on your agency website. This way you allow the public to access as many documents as possible, which is the main idea od FOIA.
  • Try to simplify the process by providing accessible procedures for people with disabilities to request records. This provides easier way for people with disabilities to access records and at the same time increases the transparency of the system.

Conclusion

The FOIA Advisory Committee recommendations, both the series of specific actions and the series of best practices, were issued for solely one reason: to improve FOIA Operations.

All of the recommendations point to the importance of teamwork, accountability, accessibility, etc. for the sole reason of improved communication with the public and most importantly satisfied requesters.

These recommendations add to the complexity of the FOIA legislation. Luckily, there are companies that work hard on offering FOIA solutions that meet all government regulations.

Take a look at Armedia FOIA Module, and how your agency can benefit from it.

If you want to know more, please feel free to contact us.

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