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Customer Service: it’s a Smart Practice—and it’s the Law!

Providing excellent customer service makes the FOIA process run more smoothly—and it’s the law! (NARA Identifier 196402)

Providing excellent customer service makes the FOIA process run more smoothly—and it’s the law! (NARA Identifier 196402)

Our last post offers some practical tips for FOIA professionals wishing to incorporate alternative dispute resolution into the FOIA process. We picked up more good ideas later in the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) 7th Annual National Training Conference during a session titled “Customer Service—It’s the Law!”

The session, which included FOIA professionals Jay Olin from the National Archives and Records Administration and Kathy Ray from the Department of Transportation, focused on the role of the FOIA Public Liaison (FPL).

First, a bit of history: although FPLs are mentioned twice in the statute, as amended by the OPEN Government Act of 2007, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(B)(ii) and  5 U.S.C. § 552(l), Executive Order (EO) 13392 established the FPL role in 2005. The EO mandated that FPLs “seek to ensure a service-oriented response to FOIA requests and FOIA-related inquires.”

For DOT’s Ray, that meant compiling an FPL handbook which contains, among other documents, the statute with the above-noted sections highlighted; DOT’s FOIA regulation; DOT’s Annual FOIA Report and  Chief FOIA Officer report; and a log to document the statutorily mandated work the FPL does to

  • reduce delays;
  • increase transparency and understand the status of requests; and
  • resolve disputes.

The handbook is meant to be a resource not just for FPLs, but all DOT FOIA professionals, Ray said.

Ray, Olin and several panel attendees noted the importance of educating two audiences about the FOIA process: requesters and program managers who hold the records being requested.

Finally, as we’ve written about before, plain writing contributes greatly to excellent customer service. One attendee noted that after she attended an ASAP session on plain writing a year ago, she began checking readability statistics of her FOIA program’s correspondence and tweaked accordingly. (In Microsoft Office Word, go to “Spelling & Grammar” → “Word Options” → “Show readability statistics.”)

The tool measures the percentage of passive sentences, a Flesch Reading Ease score (a 0-to-100 scale with a score of 60 to 70 indicating ease of understanding for the typical 13- to 15-year-old) and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score.

The bottom line, panelists and attendees agreed, is in written correspondence with requesters, do more than just cite an exemption: explain it and, if possible, the types of information withheld under the exemption.

Have other thoughts? Drop us a line.

(So how did we do with this blog post? Just 9 percent of our sentences are passive—not bad for writing about an event that occurred in the past (May 14). But a Flesch Reading Ease score of 43.9 isn’t great. And a grade level score of 11.7 is a bit high. Must be the statutory cites and the acronyms!)

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