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Automating the FOIA process

Brenda Dodd
May 15, 2016 9:10:42 AM

It was a pleasure to sponsor last week’s ACEDS webinar featuring Mr. Daniel J. Metcalfe, the founding director of the Department’s Office of Information and Privacy (OIP). In the early days, Mr. Metcalfe guided all federal agencies on the government-wide administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In this interview by ACEDS Executive Director Mary Mack, he illustrated the labor intensive and time consuming FOIA request process in great detail and shared valuable insights on how agencies can proactively prepare for FOIA and Public Records Act requests and enable predictable discovery costs.


Key Elements to Optimize the FOIA Process

Being an important pioneer in FOIA practices, Mr. Metcalfe explained that the original objective of FOIA was to implement a coherent approach to interpreting and handling FOIA requests. Since then, different administrations have displayed different levels of transparency. As Mr. Metcalfe states, even the most pro-disclosure administrations tend to keep their secrets. But it’s not politics alone that frustrate transparency; it’s often also simply a matter of dollars. Request back-logs form an expensive problem that can only being solved by adding more money, more resources and by using technology to improve processing speed and response time.

In the webinar Mr. Metcalfe discusses two key elements that he sees being most important in the optimization of the FOIA process:

  • Doing the right thing by training people not to withhold too much information;
  • Improving efficiency through automation.

Doing “the right thing” ties into the capability to evaluate the question of sensibility “will there be any foreseeable harm?” There are nine exemptions that can limit the level of disclosure and the letter of these exemptions is very clear. An experienced FOIA officer however, should be able to define case by case, what the level of this “possible foreseeable harm” is, and with the right tools (like redaction), balance between transparency and privacy protection for example.

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Improve efficiency

To improve efficiency, Mr. Metcalfe advises agencies to automate as much of the processes as possible and urges FOIA professionals to work hand in hand with at least two technical colleagues from within the agency. He points specifically to the Information Research Manager and the Record Manager who needs to make sure that all records are readily searchable.

Additionally, Mr. Metcalfe encourages agencies to discuss and negotiate the scope of the request with the requester. Nowadays most documents are handed over in digital form. When an agency is able to understand at the onset how large a project will be, it is better positioned to discuss the reasonable scope of it with the requester.

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