I am often asked why the quality of various FOIA Office releases is so inconsistent. For instance, one recent inquiry from someone who makes a number of requests to the FBI asked why the FBI FOIA Office was releasing news articles in full in some cases and in others they were withholding names throughout the articles.
Increased the quality of FOIA releases is important for a number of reasons. First, quality work is always a good thing and it reflects well on the agency that is making the release. Secondly, quality work can reduce costs in that requests are less likely to be appealed (or litigated) and supplemental releases are then less likely to be required.
There are a number of reasons why releases have what many would think are the kinds of mistakes that should be caught before a release is made. Of course, incompetence would be the first reason—however; I don’t think it is true that most of the folks processing FOIA releases are truly incompetent. Instead, I see them as being inadequately trained and overworked. Thus, with the rush to get releases out, quality control often is not stressed. Further, many of the individuals processing FOIA requests at various agencies are new (or have less than a couple of years experience) in processing FOIA requests. This will cause errors in processing as well. It is generally believed throughout the government that it takes at least two years to fully train an individual to be able to process FOIA requests. Having a staff with at least two years FOIA experience is a luxury that many FOIA Offices simply do not have.
Another reason is that the supervisors who are responsible for the final processing decisions are also under trained and rushed. Think of the “I Love Lucy” episode where the candy is coming on the conveyer belt. This is how many FOIA Offices operate due to a lack of adequate funding. Thus, supervisors are just trying to keep up with the requests they have, rather than actually taking the time to look at them. And like those working for them, they also do not have the ability to attend enough training sessions.
There are a number of ways to fix the problems associated with the quality of the processing of FOIA requests. In my opinion, the top short term fix would be increased FOIA training – be it in house at the agency level or government wide. For instance, in my earlier example, someone who hears that they must release a newspaper article in a file in full at a training session is much more likely to not repeat that mistake in the future. And if they are told by an ill-informed supervisor to do it, they will be able to say, but at the training session I was told otherwise, and hopefully will have the documentation to back it up.
FOIA training is offered by the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy, the USDA’s Graduate School, the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) and other for profit organizations. There is always a need for more FOIA training, as illustrated by the record attendance at ASAP’s recent sessions in both Washington, DC and Las Vegas.
The second long term way to fix quality in FOIA releases is to create a specific FOIA job category in the federal job classification system. Currently there is no career FOIA path. So many people enter an agency as a FOIA analyst and after a year or so, move on to a better paying job outside of FOIA. A specific FOIA job category with a potential to move to a higher grade level without moving to a new job would allow agencies to retain people in FOIA jobs for longer periods of time. This would allow them to gain valuable FOIA experience and as such, would allow the quality of FOIA releases to increase over time.
The recent FOIA legislation had a FOIA career path in one of the versions that was introduced in the Congress. However, this proposal did not make it to the final version and hopefully, will be reintroduced in the future.
Hopefully, with training, adequate funding and a way to keep FOIA employees in their jobs for a longer periods of time, the quality of FOIA releases can be improved over the long run.