With the end of the fiscal year upon us, the “September Mad Dash” is coming to a close. By “September Mad Dash” I am referring to the effort made by many agencies to meet their FOIA goals of backlog reduction and closing the ten oldest cases within the end of the fiscal year timeframe. These data measures are commonly recognized across the FOIA community, as well as at the Department of Justice, as a simple means to demonstrate the success and productivity of an agency’s FOIA operations. Anyone who has participated in the “September Mad Dash” knows that it is a hectic and far from fun time period where extra hours are often added to the days and weeks. With this experience fresh in the minds of FOIA professionals, this is a great opportunity to discuss methods and strategies to rid the need for the “September Mad Dash.”
The only way to eliminate the “September Mad Dash” is to spread the workload across the other eleven months of the year, rather than condensed within September’s 30 calendar days. In order to do this, you should deploy a strategy based on three principals:
- Establish and know your FOIA goals.
- Monitor your progress.
- Make the first two principals known by your team.
1. Setting Goals
Setting goals at the beginning of the fiscal year is extremely important because it is always good to provide direction at the outset. Also, by setting goals early in the year you are providing the most amount of time to meet those goals. Most agencies share relatively the same goals annually: reduce the backlog, improve response times, increase transparency, and provide better customer service. Although these general goals will be shared by most agencies, it is still important to specify your own agency’s or office’s goals. Specify backlog reduction percentage goal, select an average amount of days you would like your response time to be, make concrete plans for how your agency will be more transparent, and state how you will offer better customer service. Once you have selected your specific goals, write them down (in pen, not pencil!).
2. Monitoring Progress
With your goals in mind, establish a system to monitor your success in meeting those goals by setting up a monthly report that provides data about your progress. Using the goals mentioned above as an example, your monthly report should show each month’s backlog request number, the average response time, information released through proactive disclosure or discretionary release, and examples of improved customer service.
For FOIAXpress users, much of this information can be gathered by running the Annual FOIA Report on a monthly basis or by using the Monthly Report feature. Additionally, you can use the Custom Report feature to develop and save a tailored report(s) that would produce your desired data with the push of a button. However it is accomplished, monitoring your progress is crucial as it will keep you aware of your success in to meeting your FOIA goals and hopefully help fend off the need for a “September Mad Dash.” Additionally, monitoring progress not only provides an opportunity to look at the success of the agency as a whole, but also the achievement of individuals on your team.
3. Getting Your Team Involved
The last principle in meeting your FOIA goals is to make your goals and progress well known to all members of your FOIA staff. Start the fiscal year by taking the FOIA goals you have written down and sharing them with your FOIA staff members; you might even want to post them on a wall in your FOIA office for all to see. Additionally, throughout the fiscal year keep staff members aware of the progress you have made in meeting the goals. Create monthly progress reports with visual charts that very simply demonstrate the success you are having in meeting your FOIA goals.
These three principles will not make FOIA processing itself easier or simpler, but should help encourage your FOIA team to stay ahead of growing backlogs and ultimately meet your annual FOIA goals. At the very least, you will create a FOIA processing environment in which all FOIA staff members are aware of the team’s goals and will be better suited to contribute to your success.