How we can all work towards a better FOIA in 2017

Our 2017 FOIA Resolutions for requesters, for agencies, and for all of us in the public records process

Written by Beryl Lipton
Edited by JPat Brown

It’s 2017, folks.

But for the FOIA world and its warriors still awaiting the arrival of Estimated Completion Dates nationwide, the January 1 holiday is but another pause in the regularly-scheduled plod of processing.

While many are expecting the unexpected from the new year, the new presidency, and the new sense of an old America, MuckRock has some suggested resolutions for those on either side of the wait.

For Requesters

Be more clear, consistent, and kind

Requesters, you are not perfect.

Plenty of you embark on the records quest with a strong but vague conviction. You’re very sure of your definite sense that an agency probably has at least something related to a possible answer to your unarticulated question. And if that seems like a difficult attitude to work with, you’re not alone: agencies think so too.

When you can, try to articulate what kinds of materials you think might exist. Contracts? Memos? Directives and other guiding materials? Mention the sort of stuff you mean when you say you want all of the documents, and consider it a sort of checklist for the direction you think the request should go in.

Point out why you think these materials exist, including links to articles or statement’s made by the department, rather than introducing assumptions based on still unsubstantiated feelings. Maybe you’re not sure what you’re looking for, but by explaining upfront why you think it exists anyway, records custodians will have an easier time situating the search within what they already understand of their departments.

Follow up with the agency regularly. But don’t harass them. MuckRock sends follow ups every two weeks after the deadline has passed; some agencies think that’s too much, but, particularly for agencies that let requests sit in radio silence, we disagree. Nonetheless, use your best judgement and, when you can, be considerate of the ECDs or other delays an agency provides.

Take time to thank agencies and officers. Highlight those that were helpful, and share the shame of those who weren’t so much. Appeal whenever you can. Request more confidently and considerately, knowing that the law is on your side.

For Agencies

Agencies, you are not perfect.

While many agencies work hard, even with the toughest requesters, to get the public what they need and want, still too many work inefficiently, inconsistently, or with little will or ability to improve and share.

Work to identify weaknesses and improve your process.

Assuming that public requests will only increase in the coming years, identify the weak spots in your process. Does it take three people and three weeks to conduct an email search? Do you print documents out to hand redact them, then scan them back into the computer to send them? Are you sure you could provide a response if only you were better at using Excel?

Begin talks about what parts of the process are a waste of everyone’s time, because only agency officers know best which those are. And remember that MuckRock and others in the FOIA community are happy to help when we can.

In the meantime, commit to quality communication. We know sometimes requesters are grumpy (even before you’ve given them reason to be!). Sometimes they’re unclear. Sometimes their requests come in sounding more like a stream-of-consciousness exercise than anything. The people can be a brutish bunch, but as a representative of their democracy, your authority earns you the responsibility of being even more fair, honest, and clear than must be expected of a civilian.

This translates into small acts, like being sure to provide an acknowledgement, even if you find the request unintelligible. Ignoring requests is confusing and frustrating. It inspires animosity even when the holdup is but a misunderstanding. Practice being a fair liaison between the public and the government, keeping in mind that you and your loved ones are also beneficiaries of the best democracy has to offer.

For All

Work in good faith.

Much is made in FOIA of good faith: during searches, in time estimates, for fee figures. But everyone on both sides of the information wall benefits from a resolution to a decent and civil country for all. As we move on into an unknown 2017, let’s all, in and out of the government, resolve to work in good faith for a more fair, FOIA-friendly future.


Image via US National Archive’s Flickr