As the provider of the leading CRM in the public sector, the Leidos DSI team deals with many Federal and state agencies who are struggling to efficiently manage their FOIA and public information request (PIR) processes. For agencies who may be looking to improve their FOIA management and customer service, here are five tips that we think will help your organization improve and simplify FOIA request management.
Proactive data posts
One way to help ease the burden of public information requests on your agency is to proactively publish unclassified materials that may be of interest to the public. One great example of this was the CIA’s decision in 2017 to publish thousands of recently de-classified files from the Kennedy assassination. Once they decided to de-classify the material, they may have been inundated with FOIA requests from journalists or citizens wanting to review the materials, but proactively making the documents available online made it accessible to the public without a FOIA request. Committing to proactive posts—particularly of files that may be of special interest to the public—ultimately results in a constantly growing library of documents available to the public online and can save your agency valuable time and staff resources that otherwise would be tied up in information requests.
Modern IT Tools
Making the request process simpler for both the requestor and your staff can also go a long way in saving your agency’s finite resources. There are many software solutions available that can help streamline and automate the request tracking, payment collecting and overall back and forth involved in processing and filling FOIA and PIR requests. However, even with these resources available, there are still many state and local agencies that are tracking and managing information requests in spreadsheets. Upgrading to a system that can take a request through your agency’s website, auto-assign it to a staff member, estimate and collect fees and provide a reference number to the agency and the requestor makes a huge difference in the efficiency and quality of the experience for the requestor and the organization. If you are interested in learning more about how software solutions can automate this process for you, take a demo of Intranet Quorum.
Another big key to improving the FOIA process for both agency staff and the public is committing to disciplined communication. What this means is having a set of standards for communicating with the public about their requests and making sure those standards are consistently applied across your organization. Something as simple as acknowledging an incoming request when it’s received can make a big difference in the requester’s experience so implementing agency-wide communication guidelines can ensure each requestor has a positive experience. If your agency is using a modern tracking system, arming a requestor with their request’s tracking number and the ability to check in and see live status updates can eliminate many follow up communications and help ease the mind of an anxious reporter or other member of the public. Additionally, if you are communicating back and forth, it’s a best practice to record all of your communications in one repository where it can be referenced along with the request itself.
The spirit of the Freedom of Information Act is about government transparency. We know this is not always easy, but we believe it is important. One way to make sure that you’re complying with the nature of that stature, more than simply the letter of the law, is to think of your role as an advocate for the requestor by cooperating with them to try to understand what information they are looking for and doing the work to help fulfill the request. We know not everyone is a FOIA expert, and they may make a request that is not quite clear in scope or directive. We recommend whenever you encounter an unclear request to reach out directly to the requester, using plain language, and try to understand as best as you can exactly what they are looking for. This can help focus your work, foster good will with the requestor and help to avoid litigation or disputes later on.
Every agency, whether required to by law or not, should define and publish a “foreseeable harm” standard that is specific to their agency to ensure both openness and protection of information that could be harmful if improperly released. What we mean by this is clearly identify the types of materials that would be harmful to release to the public that your staff can refer to when they receive a request. A well-defined policy makes it easier for your staff to make informed decisions regarding disclosure while working with the public. When filling a request, be sure to confirm that requested documents that are classified continue to be properly classified, rather than assuming their status has not changed. Lastly, releasing documents to the requestors as they become available rather than waiting until the entire request is filled can help ease the mind of the requestor and show that your agency is working on their request.
Clear Fee Structure
Processing fees is a big part of FOIA processing which can be simplified by implementing a few best practices. First, agencies should provide costs estimates as soon as possible after receiving and reviewing a request. Having a defined pricing structure clearly listed on your website can help mitigate back and forth between the requestor and agency as well. Secondly, each agency should apply a minimum fee for small requests. One federal agency does not charge for any request that they estimate to be less than $50. This makes it easy for their staff to process less labor intensive requests more quickly. Finally, agency staff should be empowered to waive fees above and beyond their outlined policies. There may be a time when a staff member assesses that waiving a fee may be a more efficient means to accommodating the requester and avoiding a dispute. Providing flexibility for your staff to make that call in certain situations can help them manage a situation before it escalates.
Hopefully these tips will be useful for your agency in efficiently managing the FOIA process. For more information on how Intranet Quorum can help you improve public relations and service fulfillment at your agency, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.