On April 2, 2018, Federal News Radio uploaded a new podcast in which Tom Temin interviews director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), Alina Semo, discussing ways for federal agencies to deal with and attempt to avoid FOIA lawsuits over requests.
When asked why FOIA requestors tend to sue in the first place, Semo exclaims that failure to communicate is a prominent theme across the board. “On the one hand, it’s the agency not communicating with the requestor and letting them know where they are in the process and how long it’s going to take to process their request.” However, Semo also states that the requestor shares responsibility in establishing a dialogue with the agency “to help narrow the scope of the request and explain exactly what they’re looking for.” In addition to miscommunication, many requestors often feel ignored when waiting for extensive periods of time without any answer from agencies.
According to Semo, these lawsuits come from a broad spectrum of people, including prisoners representing themselves in court who want access to their underlying criminal file, civil society organizations, various public interest groups, and private law firms representing other individuals.
In terms of actions agencies can take to avoid future lawsuits, Semo discusses several options, including giving requestors an estimated date for when the request will be completed as well as a focus on “default toward disclosure,” in which agencies proactively disclose records that might of public interest.
AINS recognizes the importance of open communications between the requester and the FOIA office. To facilitate communication, our Public Access Link (PAL) portal allows FOIA staff to openly communicate with requesters and provide progress updates on requests. We have found that by using PAL to provide transparent updates on progress, along with setting clear response time expectations at the beginning of the request process, go a long way to improving the relationship between the requester and the agency and ultimately, reducing the number of lawsuits. PAL also enables agencies to proactively post frequently requested documents that requesters can search and download as needed. By proactively posting documents agencies not only reduce their FOIA request workload but also reduce the risk of lawsuits.
For more information on how PAL and FOIAXpress® can significantly reduce the time and cost in fulfilling requests, as well as work to prevent request lawsuits altogether, please visit AINS at https://www.ains.com/foiaxpress/.
To access the full Federal News Radio podcast, follow this link to https://federalnewsradio.com/federal-drive/2018/04/alina-semo-how-to-avoid-and-deal-with-foia-lawsuits/.