Freedom of Information Act / Privacy Act (FOIA/PA)regulations should be easy to understand for both agency staff and people looking for a release of information. The goal of FOIA/PA is to promote transparency in Federal agencies where FOIA focuses on government information and PA on individual (i.e. personal) information. Sometimes though, requesting and delivering information to a requestor don’t flow so smoothly.
The Center for Effective Government has published a short manual of FOIA best practices as recommendations for improving agency FOIA compliance. This guide recommends agencies adopt some best practices for agency FOIA regulations.
Here is a practical summary of this 8-points guide. But before we go into the details, let us just say that the ArkCase platform has a tailor-made FOIA module that allows users a smooth management of FOIA requests, from start to finish.
1. Expand Proactive Online Disclosures
Agencies need to post information online proactively to make it easily accessible, avoiding the need for FOIA requests. This will reduce the number of requests filed by US citizens, and effectively reduce the workload of the government agency.
For example, the Department of the Interior (DOI) increased transparency by proactively identifying records of interest to the public and posted these records online.
2. Use The Internet To Process Requests More Effectively
Agencies should allow requesters to submit requests and appeals online. They should also provide online tracking and use email as a default way of communicating. Allowing people to fill out forms online greatly reduces the paper-dependancy and also speeds up the process from request to official answer. It also helps eliminate lost requests through automation. Some solutions even provide requestors with status updates.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency allows people to submit requests by email or through the agency website, which is easier and faster than by regular mail. Other agencies need to use existing technology to provide more effective service to requesters.
3. Acknowledge And Track FOIA Request Promptly
Agencies need to promptly acknowledge that they have received requests and make it easier to track the progress of a request. This feedback helps requesters know that their form is valid and accepted by the agency. A simple email notification helps in achieving this goal.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides all requesters with a tracking number to more easily track their requests. Requesters can then use these tracking numbers to track the progress of their request, which significantly improves the level of transparency and satisfaction of people who are asking for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) provides all requesters with a tracking number to more easily track their requests. Requesters can then use these tracking numbers to track the progress of their request, which significantly improves the level of transparency and satisfaction of people who are asking for a release of information.
4. Clearly And Proactively Communicate With Requests
Agencies need to proactively communicate with requesters and be sure that agency staff understands the requested information. This proactive communication and confirming of the request details will go a long way in avoiding any confusion.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) contacts requesters before rejecting access. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security inform requesters if the processing will be delayed. In both cases, this extra effort helps avoiding tensions or unwanted situations between the agency and persons requesting information.
5. Prevent The Destruction From Records And Apply A Presumption Of Disclosure
Destruction of confidential documents as means to hide something is well known, and we have unfortunately heard of this many times over our history. So naturally, there is a legislative framework that governs old classified documents and ArkCase, powered by Alfresco, helps organizations be in full compliance with records management legislation.
On the other hand, other than prevention, agencies need to adopt a “foreseeable harm” standard for withholding information. The whole point of FOIA is allowing the public to gain access to information and having this standard will help clerks honor the FOIA philosophy. The NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) requires agency reviewers to foresee particular harm from the disclosure of records. This way NARA makes sure that the agency does not withhold information unnecessarily.
6. Streamline And Limit Confidential Business Information Claims
Confidential business information claims need to be narrowly interpreted to ensure reasonable limiting for the claims of confidentiality. In many instances, this type of information is sensitive, proprietary data of corporations and releasing that in the public can cause real damage to the information owners.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requires companies with trade secrets concerns to instantly object to disclosure of claimed confidential information. With this extra step that is part of the ArkCase workflow, companies can have a say in what goes out in the public. It also helps government agencies not to become FOIA hostages and be forced to release information that is of critical corporate-owned data.
7. Clarify Fees And Waiver Procedures
Agencies need to adopt clear procedures for fees and fee waivers. These include fees for searching of information, duplication, and release.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) has adopted a reasonable opening for minimum fee charges to prevent disputes and delays over small amounts of money. This problem is further mitigated by using modern case management systems and modern document management systems that make data retrieval and distribution practically instantaneous and free.
8. Improve Dispute Resolution And Administrative Appeals
Agencies need to provide adequate procedures for appealing agency decisions and resolving disputes with requesters. When each denied request can be attributed to a very specific exemption code, government clerks and citizens can more freely proceed with that request, whether that would be closure or appeal.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative provides 60 days to submit the appeals. It will ensure that those who wish to dispute decisions will not be prevented from doing so because of unreasonably short deadlines. With a modern case management system, these appeals can be filed and managed by departments within the defined timeframe for each step of the request or appeal.
Adopting effective, modern FOIA rules is an essential and important step toward reinvigorating FOIA and ensuring U.S citizens have access to public information in a timelier fashion.
But with all the moving parts and variables attributed to any request, agencies rely on complex case management systems and document management systems to make FOIA a working reality.
ArkCase has a FOIA extension that uses queues to efficiently manage requests and an integrated redaction module for redacting PII and tracking exemption codes for each redaction.
By integrating with Alfresco Records Management, ArkCase provides a DoD 5015.2 compliant solution for managing and retaining records associated with FOIA.
ArkCase provides a configurable queue workflow that allows business to accelerate the processing and distribution of FOIA responses. Agencies using such integrated systems like ArkCase are set to serve these FOIA requests with minimal effort and provide optimal service to citizens while making sure there is no classified data leaks in the public.