Why a FOIA workforce shortage? Employees may see work as ‘punishment’

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Agencies receive more Freedom of Information Act requests now than ever before. But their workforces haven’t kept up with the growing demand.

“This is particularly challenging the federal government, especially lately where there has been a perception that the FOIA is where employees are assigned as a form of punishment,” Alina Semo, the director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) said last week at a forum on records management at the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Last year, the government received more than 800,000 FOIA requests, but agencies only have about 4,500 FOIA officers to handle that growing caseload.

Anecdotally, agency employees have viewed details to FOIA offices as a disciplinary measure. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly reassigned employees to the agency’s FOIA office during his tenure. The agency has one of the higher FOIA backlogs in government.

Officials told news outlets that getting sent to work in the FOIA office was like getting sent “to Siberia.” Secretary Mike Pompeo stopped the so-called “FOIA surge” once he took over.

After several years of advocacy from groups like the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP), the Office of Personnel Management in April 2012 issued a job series that recognizes FOIA officers as a professional career track. The job series provides a career ladder for people who want to devote their work lives to providing the public with access to agency records

Semo called the new job series a “good start,” but said more needs to be done.

“We need to look for ways to identify young talent and bring them into the career path,” Semo said.

The FOIA Advisory Committee’s final report it issued in April identified a number of best practices related to bringing in talent. It found agencies have had success by creating rotational programs to expose inexperienced or entry-level employees to the FOIA process. The same goes for agency interns and employees on temporary assignment.

NARA moving to digital-only records

Semo said agencies also face a growing challenge around electronic records.

“As agencies create more records, it means that FOIA offices will have to search through more records to find what is responsive and review and process more records. Technology can help us address this issue, but it’s not a silver bullet, unfortunately.”

The keyword searches many agencies are using to find electronic records return a higher number of results that may be related to the topic of the FOIA request. Powerful e-discovery tools offer much better search results, but those tools are expensive and not within the budget of many of the 400 FOIA offices that exist within about 117 agencies — particularly for offices that do not receive a large volume of requests every year.

NARA faces a significant uptick in new e-records. In 2005, the agency managed about 12 billion pages of electronic archives. Now it keeps track of more than 34 billion pages.

By 2022,  NARA will no longer accept temporary or permanent records from agencies in a non-electronic format

OGIS found agencies struggle to make records accessible, especially when they’re created or stored in ways that make them difficult to find. Just as well, Semo said agencies spend most of their time focused on meeting mission, rather than making their records FOIA-friendly.

“At the National Archives, access to records is a core part of our mission, but the FOIA offices at most other agencies are not so lucky. Records are created and stored in ways that sometimes make it difficult and inefficient for FOIA professionals to A) Find those records in response to FOIA requests and B) Release those records to FOIA requesters. We can’t stress this enough, records management is critical to an effective way process,” Semo said. “No records management no access.”

In order to get ahead of this challenge, she said agencies should take a big-picture view of records management.

“Spending some time about thinking how a record can be released at the beginning of the information lifecycle can save an agency scarce resources later in the FOIA release process,” Semo said.

‘No one-size-fits-all solution’

But agencies confront a wide variety of records types that they need to preserve. Semo said different agencies address this in different ways.

“We recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for managing a FOIA program,” she said. “Agencies have to set up their processes to account for a variety of factors, including the sensitivity of the records and the agency’s IT infrastructure. What works well at the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection … a new agency with largely electronic records, may not work at the U.S. Postal Service, an agency that was built to sustain the exchange of paper between people.”

Last month, the governmentwide FOIA Advisory Committee kicked off its third term. At the meeting, the group formed three subcommittees: one focused on records management, one focused on the vision and future of FOIA, and another to tackle the increased volume of FOIA requests increasing length of time for agencies to respond to those requests.

“Overall, the trends that we’re seeing are that the backlogs are growing and the delays are growing for complex requests.”