VHA cuts FOIA backlog in half, thanks to telework infrastructure

Michael Sarich, FOIA director for the Veterans Health Administration, said “FOIA programs are going to be fine if our people are fine."

Agency Freedom of Information Act professionals, like much of the federal workforce, have spent much of this year rethinking the way they do their jobs under mandatory telework.

The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, back in May, encouraged agency FOIA offices to seek out IT workarounds to keep running, “even at a diminished pace,” during the pandemic.

Six months after that memo, Michael Sarich, FOIA director for the Veterans Health Administration, said the agency had an “incredible year” and cut its case backlog by more than half. The goal of processing 600 cases in its backlog, he said, helped unify staff around a goal during a challenging time for the federal workforce.

“FOIA programs are going to be fine if our people are fine. So we take care of our people first, and then we focus on the mission,” Sarich said Oct. 28 at a virtual conference hosted by AINS, a vendor that provides FOIA request tracking and management software.

Sarich serves as the co-chair of the tech committee of the Chief FOIA Officers Council, which recently created several working groups to address some of the challenges and opportunities of emerging technology.

While the pandemic and mandatory telework have made some aspects of the job challenging — such as retrieving and opening mail at the office — Sarich said agencies with systems in place that allowed employees to telework had the easiest transition during the pandemic.

“If you were already working in a telework position, if you were already remotely working two or three or four days a week, or two or three days a pay period, that transition was easier because your IT already worked,” Sarich said. “You already could log your systems, you already could work with your [commercial off the shelf] product. You already had those first steps taken care of.”

Sarich said other agencies have successfully kept FOIA operations going through a hybrid model of only letting a few employees work in the office. Regardless, he said that agencies recruiting the next generation of FOIA professionals should prepare for new hires that expect to have the flexibility to work from home several days a week.

Ben Tingo, the chief compliance officer and general counsel of AINS, said agencies that adopted software-as-a-service FOIA case management solutions before the pandemic were in a better position to allow remote access and telework, and during the pandemic were “in a much better position than those that did not make the move to the cloud.”

While VHA has remained productive chipping away at its backlog, agencies still have to overcome some of the cultural hurdles of full-time telework. Videoconference platforms, for example, have kept offices on-track with tasks, but Sarich said some employees miss the camaraderie of the office or having a different outlet for communication with staff, while others have a tough time putting work aside for the day.

“People have a difficult time unplugging from work, where they’ll stay online for hours and hours. Or they’ll put their kids to bed, perhaps, and then come back and check-in at 10 o’clock and they end up working until 2 [o’clock],” Sarich said.

Depending on the agency, FOIA professionals may not have the IT infrastructure necessary to deal with large file sizes, such as the maps that the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management are expected to produce for records requests.

“Not everybody lives in a digital universe where all of their documents that are responsive to FOIA requests are retrievable by a simple click of a button, and it could be either found manually and then reproduced or digitized on-demand,” Sarich said.

Meanwhile, the telework conversation remains a nonstarter for FOIA professionals who work at national security and intelligence agencies and deal with sensitive material.

“If you’re dealing with classified information, then remote work just isn’t an option. You can’t turn your home office into a SCIF to process this information because it’s just not permissible and safe for the information,” Sarich said.

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