The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy is leading a governmentwide effort to set technology standards for tools agencies use to manage a growing volume of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
DOJ OIP is leading an interagency working group setting standards for FOIA case management, along with the National Archives and Records Administration’s Office of Government Information Services and the General Services Administration’s Office of Shared Services and Performance Improvement.
The working group expects to have a draft baseline version of the business standards available for public comment early this summer, and anticipates finalizing the business standards later this calendar year.
DOJ OIP Director Bobby Talebian said these business standards are coming at a critical time for FOIA professionals in government.
“Ultimately, our goal is to make sure that agencies and these professionals have the tools they need to make sure that their programs run efficiently and effectively. Having an efficient case management system makes sure that the requests go through the process, from intake to response to the requester, smoothly,” Talebian said in a recent interview.
The working group is looking to set business standards around several functional areas of FOIA case management – including the FOIA request intake process, processing and responding to the requester, fee estimation and processing, as well as administrative appeals and customer service.
“We’re hoping that with common business standards, agencies will have a baseline of requirements that they can use to identify the right tools. Industry can develop better tools for us to be able to be more responsive and respond to higher volumes of requests efficiently and effectively,” Talebian said.
Once the final version of business standards is released, Talebian said they will help agencies understand which FOIA tools meet the standard for “efficient and effective FOIA administration.”
“Managing FOIA workflow is just like any other industry. If you’re not tracking progress, if you’re not tracking work, it doesn’t get done,” Talebian said. “And so, [it’s] giving FOIA managers the tools to be able to effectively adjust workflows and make decisions to reduce backlogs and respond to requests as quickly as possible.”
The federal government in fiscal 2022 received a record high of more than 900,000 new FOIA requests.
“The more and more agencies get requests, obviously, the more time it takes for intake, all the way through the review process, and to be able to respond. And so, agencies need the tools to be able to scale up their intake and management of these requests,” Talebian said.
“That’s why it makes it essential that we have the tools that we need. There’s nothing more frustrating for a FOIA professional, just like any other industry, to not have the tools that you need to do your job,” he added.
Given the steady increase in new FOIA requests each year, agencies are seeing significant spikes in their workloads.
“We want the public to use this really important service, to inform them about their government and have meaningful public engagement. But of course, that also then puts a strain on FOIA professionals and our abilities to respond to large volumes of requests,” Talebian said.
In addition to supporting the FOIA workforce, the upcoming business standards are meant to help agencies understand which commercial tools and services adhere to DOJ OIP guidance and statutory requirements.
The business standards will also help agencies understand which tools support governmentwide FOIA reporting. That reporting is critical for agencies to provide reliable data and metrics for annual FOIA reports.
“We want to make sure the requirements of the case management systems are able to capture the data that’s needed for those reports, and that we’re able to extract that data for the annual report in a way that’s accurate,” Talebian said.
Agencies also need reliable reporting to understand their FOIA workloads and effectively manage incoming FOIA requests, along with requests agencies are already in the process of fulfilling.
“That functionality is essential for efficient workflows, and managing and staying ahead of the trends in the processing of requests,” Talebian said.
Talebian said the new business standards will save agencies the hassle of developing their own requirements to procure FOIA tools.
“We want to make sure agencies have a baseline of common requirements that they can look to, and make sure that those solutions they’re looking at meet those, and then they can focus on what’s more unique to them,” he said.
The business standards will help address some of the common pain points around FOIA case management across government.
“It provides them a good baseline. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And then they can focus on what are more unique to their needs, if there’s any level of customization that they need, or want to match their specific workflows, which can differ from agency to agency,” Talebian said.
The standards will also help agencies more easily decide if emerging technology tools are the right fit.
“One of the challenges is just knowing what’s out there. We’re doing better with that, and I think the business standards are going to help with that,” Talebian said.
The Chief FOIA Officers Council held a “NextGen FOIA Tech Showcase” in February 2022 to identify technologies that could help agencies process their FOIA requests more easily.
While DOJ OIP doesn’t endorse any commercially available tools, Talebian said the showcase featured tools that serve as a “one-stop shop” for agencies, and include a case tracking system, review platform and eDiscovery features that help FOIA officers find responsive records.
Agencies also see the potential to use artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to help manage their FOIA workloads.
“I think everyone is excited with all the different ways AI and machine learning are being used, and how that’s rapidly developing. There’s a lot of potential for FOIA processing, especially in that area. It’s really fast-developing, we want to definitely take advantage of it,” Talebian said.