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Thinking about process

Whether you are making melon baskets or resolving FOIA disputes, process is important. (ARC Identifier 523099)

When OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet opened the office in September 2009, three requests for OGIS assistance awaited her attention, yet she had no process in place for dealing with cases or any staff members to work on them.

Since its inception, one of the great challenges OGIS has faced is figuring out how to do its work while doing its work. We knew from the start that one key role is to help agencies and requesters better communicate, but the way that we accomplish that goal has evolved since the office first opened.

If you opened a case with OGIS in our early days and then another in recent months, you might notice that our administrative process has, in some ways, become more formal. When you request OGIS assistance, you first receive an acknowledgement letter informing you of your case number. This means that you have submitted your case online to the OGIS Access System (OAS) or we have logged your case into OAS, a case management system that allows us to keep track of your request and all correspondence that goes with it. This is a major change from the paper and database process used in our early days, and apart from some growing pains, we find the OAS to be an invaluable tool. (We began using the OAS in early October 2011 at the beginning of FY 2012.)

Your request is then assigned to an OGIS facilitator, who communicates with you and the agency to better understand the nature of your dispute. Although every case is different (as is every OGIS facilitator), most follow a fairly predictable path that we call the FOIA Dispute Resolution Process. This process is the context in which we provide our ombuds and facilitation services.

Many OGIS cases are resolved through the FOIA Dispute Resolution Process. Those that are not may move to formal mediation (where it is appropriate) or sometimes, cases may be closed without resolution. While many cases are closed with some kind of final letter from OGIS to the customer, others may not be for a number of reasons. Whatever the result of OGIS’s process, it is important to remember that if your case is closed, it can be reopened if you have additional comments or concerns.

The last step in the FOIA Dispute Resolution Process asks you to reflect on lessons learned. We practice self-reflection as we continue to evolve our services, and we encourage you to do the same as you consider the FOIA services in your agency. This type of self-evaluative exercise is worth your time investment because it can identify ways to streamline your procedures and build efficiencies into your process.  Improving your business processes can lead to improving the way in which your agency administers FOIA—truly a win-win situation.

Our process has evolved over the years in response to customer feedback, observation of what works, and direction from our agency and requester community stakeholders. However, we know that we still have room to improve. If you have suggestions for changes you would like to see to OGIS’s process, please let us know.