Can agencies build greater trust in the FOIA process?

Agency officials hope that technology can help automate practices to make the government more transparent -- but they first need to improve the practices themselves.

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With limited resources and an increasing workload, agency officials hope that technology can help automate practices to make the government more transparent.  First, however, they need to improve the practices themselves.

The process surrounding Freedom of Information Act requests has engendered frustration over both the lengthy time it takes to receive responses and the not-so-transparent aspects of the process surrounding the 50-year-old transparency law.

 At a July 27 Chief FOIA Officers Council meeting, the issues of limited resources and manpower, combined with the recent boom in the number of requests, were repeatedly recognized as challenges by both FOIA officials and requesters.

FOIA Public Liaison for the Department of Health and Human Services Michael Bell said his 14-person office, which has seen roughly a 25 percent increase in FOIA requests so far in 2017, is focusing on its communication with requesters to add to the spirit of transparency.

“We’re hoping technology can help [records management] in the future” by allowing the tracking of records, greater automation and eventually open-source records, he added.

For example, the Social Security Administration's FOIA office recently started handling requests online, and according to Linda Frye, FOIA public liaison for SSA, it’s already shown “a lot of improvements on being able to get the documents submitted to us quicker,” as well as teaching what is and is not covered by the transparency law.

From the perspective of the requester, transparency advocate Michael Morisy acknowledged that “many of those FOIA officers face almost an impossible job,” but added that FOIA offices and agencies at large would benefit “to bake transparency in from the beginning.”

Morisy, who is a cofounder of the MuckRock site, noted that the FOIA Improvement Act, while giving the transparency law some teeth, included “13 dreaded words: ‘no additional funds are authorized to carry out the requirements of this bill.’”

Facing budget cuts and staffing shortages, FOIA offices “are asked to carry out more ... without the resources to tackle the growing challenges,” he said. “I think that is not a sustainable path in terms of keeping up with increasing demand with the current resources.”

SSA's FOIA office is “running twice as many requests with one-third the staff,” Frye said.  “We know we’re not getting additional resources.”

Part of the issue facing FOIA officers is requesters’ lack of familiarity with the FOIA process, as well as their skepticism of the agency from which they’re requesting records.

“What we’re seeing in many cases are huge requests that are a result of a requester who maybe has a lack of trust in an agency,” said Carrie McGuire, a program analyst at the Office of Government Information Service.

Specifically, she said that requesters will “ask for everything” rather than narrowing their requests, leaving what gets sent back to the discretion of the FOIA official.

However, FOIA offices still have room for improvement in terms of addressing transparency issues and antiquated processes.

Michael Ravnitzky, former chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, said that in spite of the resource challenges, improved communication from FOIA offices would alleviate much of the uncertainty on the requesters’ end.

Changes as simple as making sure agencies maintain an updated list of contacts for their FOIA office online, getting all agencies to accept FOIA requests via email and removing some of the boilerplate legalese from request letters would go a long way, he said.

He also recommended not assigning the same employee to serve as both the FOIA officer and the FOIA public liaison and consulting with IT specialists to help with the technical aspects of agency web pages.

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