Top FOIA officials pursue automation tools amid unprecedented surge in records requests

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Faced with an unprecedented volume of Freedom of Information Act requests, top agency FOIA officials say automation could help ease the burden of their strained workforces.

At a Chief FOIA Officers Council meeting on July 19, Sam Kaplan, the Department of Homeland Security’s chief FOIA officer, said the agency has begun using automation to identify and remove duplicate copies of records from FOIA requests — a process that, until recently, employees had to do by hand.

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“We are starting to rely on a digital approach and using tools that allow this processing to be automated. Hopefully, this will drastically reduce the time required on this necessary aspect of the FOIA processing. It will it help assure consistency across our vast department,” Kaplan said.

Far from putting the jobs of FOIA officers in peril, Ryan Law, the Treasury Department’s chief FOIA officer, said the tools will help workers fill more records requests in less time.

“At the end of the day, a human needs to sit and review records, and make judgment decisions, and a computer can never do that,” Law said, adding that robotics processing automation could help complete rote tasks like sending acknowledgment letters and status updates to requesters. “That will allow the FOIA professionals to spend more time with a marker in hand, doing redactions, and to deal with more complex issues in reviewing documents.”

While agencies made a dent in the overall FOIA backlog last year, new data from the Justice Department shows half of the agencies that receive the most open records requests saw their backlogs increase.

In an interview with Federal News Radio, Melanie Ann Pustay, the director of DOJ’s Office of Information Policy, said new technology could empower FOIA professionals to do their jobs in a more streamlined way.

“With the huge number of requests and the complexity of requests, the use of email, it is just absolutely critical that agencies have available to them as many technological tools as possible to help manage and process that information,” Pustay said.

Amid the push for a more tech-driven FOIA process, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Tuesday introduced the second phase of its FOIA Immigration Records System (FIRST), which allows requesters to track the status of their requests through an online account and receive their documents digitally.

But amid the demand for a more seamless FOIA process online, Pustay added that there’s no replacing the current FOIA workforce.

“You’re never going to be able to replace the need for that human intervention, but to the extent you can have technology assist in getting the documents to the human professionals in a streamlined way — in a more thoughtful way, in a more organized way — that will help the process not only go faster, but should help improve the overall quality  of the response that’s made by the agency,” she said.

Shortly after his confirmation in April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ended an all-hands-on-deck approach to addressing the agency’s “FOIA surge” by reassigning high-level career employees to handle FOIA requests.

In May, the American Foreign Service Association wrote that the reassignments were “widely perceived as an exercise to drive people out by displacing them to tasks incommensurate with their diplomatic skills and experience.”

In light of the FOIA morale issue at the State Department, Pustay defended the work of FOIA professionals, adding that those jobs require critical thinking and analytical skills.

“This is work that requires a degree, this is work that requires training. In all the years that I’ve been working in FOIA, there have been so many people that have made it their career, and that work decades in the field,” Pustay said.

In 2012, the Office of Personnel Management established a new job series for FOIA officers, offering them more room for advancement in their agencies. More recently in 2016, the agency released new performance standards for the FOIA workforce.

“It’s really rewarding to see that there is a career track for FOIA professionals, that people get into this field and really enjoy it and thrive on it and feel very satisfied with the contribution that they’re making to our government,” Pustasy added.

The FOIA Improvement Act, which Congress passed in 2016, requires agencies to post documents online after they’ve been requested three or more times. But agencies find themselves under strain to meet the new demand the law provides.

That’s because the same workforce that codes documents to make them compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is the same workforce that processes FOIA requests.

“One of the biggest challenges we have with making available records that had been processed under FOIA is that before something is posted on the internet, it has to be appropriately coded and formatted so that it is accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities,” Pustay said.

And in many cases, FOIA officials have complained that document requests have gotten more demanding to complete.

“We’re hearing from agencies that it’s just tremendously challenging trying to keep up with the demand — that the numbers of incoming requests keep growing exponentially. And it’s not just the number of requests, but the complexity of the requests,” Pustay said.

While the law only requires agencies to publicly post document requests after three requests, OIP has urged agencies to proactively disclose documents of interest to the public.

“Our guidance on proactive disclosures asked agencies to identify records even before there’s one request, when you know that a topic is going to be of interest, or your agency is implementing something that will be of interest to the public. It’s really terrific if the agency can get out ahead of a request and make information available,” Pustay said.

Earlier this year, OIP launched the first iteration of its National FOIA Portal through a redesign of its existing FOIA.gov website. After several developments, the agency plans to make FOIA.gov a one-stop shop for FOIA requests governmentwide.

Next fiscal year, Pustay said OIP will begin linking up more than a hundred agency FOIA case management systems to the National FOIA portal.

“We really want to be able to upgrade their reporting tools and have the ability to generate annual FOIA reports right out of FOIA.gov. That, I think, would be a tremendous advantage to the agencies,” she said.