A few weeks ago, AINS proudly announced the appointment of General Counsel and Vice President of Partnerships, Benjamin Tingo, to the 2022-2024 National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee. Starting this month, Ben will have a blog series focused on modern FOIA. To kick things off, we introduce you to Ben and share what his new position means for AINS’ FOIA community.
Q: Congratulations on your appointment! Please tell us a little bit about your background with AINS and why you chose to join NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee.
A: Thanks! I have been AINS’ General Counsel since 2016. Prior to joining AINS, I worked as a litigator in a variety of specialties, including non-profit public criminal defense and on behalf of employees and whistleblowers fighting discrimination, harassment, and wrongful terminations. My work frequently involved navigating administrative processes and procedures and significant interaction with government agencies.
I firmly believe that government is good, and that good governance makes our lives better, but I also know first-hand that dealing with our federal government can be a frustrating experience, even when everyone involved has the best of intentions.
I also believe that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” and that having an open and transparent government is a critical component of any functioning democracy and the key to ensuring we stay on the right path. The Freedom of Information Act is the cornerstone of our government’s commitment to transparency, and I am proud to work for AINS which helps the government fulfill this commitment to all of us, every day, by delivering high-quality case management solutions, like FOIAXpress.
I volunteered for the FOIA Advisory Committee to more directly use my knowledge and experience (including my significant experience with discovery processes and eDiscovery) to make FOIA more efficient and effective for requesters, government professionals, and for all of us who benefit from continued transparency.
Q: What does AINS having a representative on this committee mean for its FOIA solutions users?
A: My participation is just one more way that AINS demonstrates its commitment to the FOIA community. For more than 20 years, we have provided FOIA case management software to the federal government, and consistently prioritized learning and engaging with our users. We then return to the table with solutions that combine those lessons with our own technology expertise.
Over the years, we have kept our customers ahead of the curve:
- We were one of the first small businesses with FedRAMP security certification for SaaS products;
- We developed our public requester portal and electronic reading rooms for requester communication and proactive disclosures;
- We delivered a collaboration portal for communication with records custodians and secure delivery of responsive records;
- We integrated seamless document review and redaction capabilities;
- We implemented the ability to massively speed and automate search, review, and redaction through the deduplication of responsive records, email chain threading, conceptual clustering, and powerful search capabilities including automated PII detection and redaction; and
- Most recently, we’ve integrated AI-based audio and video redaction capabilities.
Despite the technology we have provided, FOIA programs are working through significant and thorny problems right now, including massively more complex and voluminous requests, and concerns about processing procedures and implementation of FOIA rules and guidelines.
My participation in the FOIA Advisory Committee will provide the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) and NARA not only with my personal input based on my legal and corporate experiences, but also access to AINS’ institutional knowledge around the ways that FOIA process and technology can speak with each other to uncover new opportunities to help FOIA programs, including our FOIA customers, meet their mandates and fulfill their missions despite the unprecedented challenges they are currently facing.
Q: What are some notable accomplishments or news that have resulted from the committee’s efforts?
A: The 2022-2024 term is the FOIA Advisory Committee’s fifth term. Over the last eight years, the committee has made 51 recommendations for areas of improvement, and 22 of those have been implemented or adopted by FOIA oversight offices, such as NARA, OGIS, and the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (DOJ OIP).
These improvements include changes to the way that agencies collect fees; updates to reporting requirements to gather better data about FOIA programs for continued improvement; and publication of guidance and resources for FOIA professionals.
The rest of the recommendations are still under consideration (only one has actually been rejected). One of our current term’s subcommittees is being tasked with reviewing past recommendations, evaluating compliance with those that have been adopted, and finding ways to get the pending and deferred recommendations unstuck and adopted.
Q: How do you plan to bridge the gap between AINS’ FOIAXpress users and the lawmakers in charge of FOIA?
A: FOIA administration is always under a microscope. FOIA offices are required to submit annual and quarterly reports on their FOIA statistics, and an annual report from their Chief FOIA Officers with more anecdotal detail about how their office is operating. These are some ways that lawmakers receive information about what is happening with FOIA, and the FOIA Advisory Committee frequently reviews agency reporting requirements to identify categories that would be helpful in making legislative improvements to FOIA.
It is also important to remember that although Congress has overall authority for amending the FOIA statutes, most of the work involved in improving FOIA happens through the publication of DOJ OIP and OGIS and NARA guidances, and through individual decisions made in each FOIA program office.
My work with the Committee will include these stakeholders as a key audience, and I hope I will be able to contribute to these conversations by providing not only insights gleaned from FOIAXpress users, but also from the broader technology sector and based on AINS’ capabilities.
Our goal at AINS is to empower our users to improve their processes and enable their offices to operate more effectively. Since FOIAXpress is highly configurable and adaptive, it is uniquely suited to support process changes and gather key data for our customers as they make changes in response to the current FOIA environment.
Q: How will the committee’s work today impact FOIA experts and the requester community in the future?
A: The primary goal of the Committee is to provide recommendations to help OGIS “identify procedures and methods improving compliance” with FOIA. For the requester community, this means shorter response times and broader releases of records. By bringing together requesters and responders in a dialogue about FOIA and the challenges that government responders currently face, we hope to increase understanding between the groups and find creative and durable ways to support the interests of both sides of the request. I’m looking forward to working with this community to improve the FOIA experience for everyone involved.
This is the first in the modern FOIA blog series. Look out for future blog posts authored by Ben himself.
Interested in learning more about FOIA and FOIAXpress? Join us at Elevate, AINS’ User Summit in DC on Nov. 3, 2022 for Ben’s sessions, “Make It Modern: You Can’t Build Your Legacy on Legacy FOIA Systems” and “Beat the Backlog: How to Fight the Effects of Multimedia FOIA Requests.”