Frederick Sadler retired, after serving 40 years with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As the Director of its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office, he was responsible for administration and implementation of FOIA and Privacy Act (PA) programs.
Question #2 : What are some of the major factors that will effect FOIA professionals in the next four years?
Answer: Limiting bonuses, reforming pension plans, reduced hiring or not backfilling vacated positions, potential budget cuts, and other Civil Service reforms, will all take a toll on an already overworked federal workforce, and FOIA will be no exception.
Reduced Hiring and its Negative Impact on Operations
As I mentioned in our first blog post August 16, decreasing staff will clearly result in an agency’s inability to maintain the status quo, unless there are creative and substantial changes in the day-to-day operations. Continued backlog reductionwill be exceptionally difficult; such efforts have been on-going for years, and the “low hanging fruit” have been harvested.
What’s usually under-estimated is the time that a FOI review requires – there must be a line-by-line, or even word-by-word, review of records before release (consider the requirement for “reasonable segregation”). And for records with a (b)(4) component, the initiation of EO 12,600 for Submitter Notice prior to release is required and can be time consuming. Redaction just can’t be rushed – it requires a level of education and understanding of the nature of the information contained in the records requested, if only because an error in release exposes an agency to potential litigation. Even the administrative requirements can be extremely time consuming, particularly for pro-active posting, or posting frequently requested records. After all, if a FOI officer had the IT skills needed to remediate and post records, s(he) would probably move to a better paying IT job.
One basic tenant, which is frequently overlooked by managers, is that even if a FOIA office can backfill a vacancy, output still slows in the short term. The experienced redactors must mentor, train, and review the work of newer staff prior to release of sensitive records to ensure compliance, thus reducing numbers of requests which they were previously able to complete.
Training for a Better FOIA
As experienced senior staff leave, there will be an increased need for training. At this time, only 2 sources of FOIA training are available – the Justice Dept., and the American Assoc. of Access Professionals (ASAP). Justice has limited resources to provide training (especially for programs outside the Washington, DC area) and may have to restrict numbers of attendees because of facility limitations, although they always do an excellent job in training. ASAP has been offering workshops outside the Metro area; in 2017, FOIA training was available in Denver and Chicago, but travel and training funds may become more of an issue in some agencies in 2018.
Making headway to help automate the FOIA request process that saves agencies time and money, while ensuring compliance with requirements, is AINS FOIAXpress.
The FOIAXpress software solution has the largest installed base of any FOIA management system on the market with over 180 customers across the United States. Customers leverage this powerful solution to manage the entire lifecycle of a FOIA request from initial request to final delivery of documents, including request management, correspondence management, document management, fee/payment management, document review and redaction, and reporting.
AINS is making headway to fill the FOIA staff training gap with its annual FOIAXpress User Conference & Technology Summit. I will be presenting at this year’s conference on October 25, 2017 at the Marriot Marquis, D.C., which is complimentary for government employees.
Visit the conference website for more information. http://info.www.ains.com/2017-FOIAXpress-User-Conference.html