Dealing with Surplus in a Time of Scarcity: Reducing FOIA Backlogs
There’s a great deal of pressure on agencies to reduce the number of FOIA requests in their backlogs. The FOIA community talks a lot about backlogs, but mostly in numbers, not in terms of how some agencies have succeeded in reducing the number of cases awaiting response. Considering the budget environment in which all agencies are operating, it’s worth exploring how some agencies have been able to tackle their backlogs.
I moderated a panel at December’s American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) Training Conference titled “Growing Backlogs, Shrinking Budgets: New Ideas about FOIA Backlogs.” Don McIlwain of the National Archives and Records Administration’s National Declassification Center, William Holzerland of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration, and FOIA Attorney Scott Hodes joined me to share their experiences. Here are some of the broad themes that emerged from that discussion.
- Communicate with requesters. The panelists agreed that this is the key to successfully closing requests in an agency’s backlog. More than one panelist shared a story of working with requesters to narrow the scope of requests, making them easier to process. However, not all communication is the same; rather than waiting months (or even years) and then sending a “still interested” letter, the panelists reported that their most successful communications with requesters were substantive, ongoing, and led to improved rapport. This investment of time can lead to enormous dividends in the form of a dwindling backlog.
- Executive interest in FOIA sets the right tone. When senior agency leaders focus on FOIA, things tend to get done. The panelists reported that in their experience at multiple agencies, they experienced the greatest success in backlog reduction where senior leaders saw it as a priority and made sure that FOIA staff had the training they needed to get the job done.
- Technology can help you rethink what is possible. Technology can help, but not in the way you might expect. None of the panelists described an experience in which his agency implemented an expensive new system that was a silver bullet for its backlog. But more than one of the panelists described using existing technology in new ways to process requests more efficiently. One notable example is an agency that used to refer documents by copying and mailing paper records that now scans the records and refers digital copies which are processed electronically once the originating agency responds. No need to reinvent the wheel!
- We are all on Team FOIA. We at OGIS love the team approach, and our panelists do, too. One panelist described his role as that of a “FOIA evangelist,” helping those in non-FOIA program offices think like FOIA folks. FOIA is the responsibility of every government employee, and agencies that have been able to communicate this message have succeeded in reducing their backlogs.
Do you have a best practice for reducing backlogs that we didn’t capture? We’d love to hear from you!