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On the Phone with FOIA Officers by Law Clerk Courtney French

March 15, 2010

Used to "reach out and touch" FOIA Officers.

My first task on the FOIA Audit was to trackdown the nineteen agencies which had not responded to our requests and try to coax out a response (or at least find out what the hold up was).

It turns out that a couple of agencies weren’t to blame for the delays, as we sent some requests to outdated or incorrect fax numbers. But the remaining delays were all due to agency mistakes and backlogs. The Department of Agriculture and the American Battlefield Monuments Commission had no record of our requests, even though they confirmed that we had sent them through the correct channels. Both were happy to accept another copy of our requests through e-mail. One agency – the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission – just plumb forgot to send us their response to our request, but they apologized and responded after my call. According to the date on the response letter, they had completed the request just two days after we filed it. But didn’t send it out for five whole months.

I had trouble getting status updates on our requests from two agencies – the Legal Services Corporation and the Court Services & Offender Supervision Agency. Although I left a several voicemail messages with the FOIA staff at each agency, they have yet to return my calls.

But most agencies I was able to get in touch with had the same response – “We’re working on it.” A few agencies estimated that they would be finished processing our requests in a week or two, but they weren’t able to stick to their estimates. Most agencies – including the Selective Service System – had no idea when we could expect a response. As of late January, the Department of State still hadn’t even assigned our request to a FOIA agent.

Although some agencies were less than helpful, and despite some inefficiencies, the clearest thing I learned while conducting the audit was how kind and eager to help most FOIA staff were once I got in touch with them.  During our conversations, their desire to help provide the public with information was clear.  Agencies’ FOIA staff are a great resource for FOIA requesters.

One Comment
  1. March 19, 2010 10:17 am

    Having spent many hours on the phone with FOIA officers, I concur that most of them are happy to help. Unfortunately, those are not the ones we most often talk about. When I tell stories to my colleagues, they’re very seldom about the helpful service I got from XYZ agency. They’re about “Good lord I want to throttle that guy/lady at XYZ agency.” I actually sent an email to OGIS a few months ago praising what a great job one agency did, and got a response back from them along the lines of “Wow, it’s nice to get an email not complaining about someone for a change.” 🙂

    Re: State — Yep, that’s State. One AUSA once remarked, when we were trying to work out a briefing schedule for several agencies, “And then there’s State…” That was all she had to say.

    The one comment I would add to this is that for whatever reason, several agencies have a person manning the phones who has no substantive contact with the FOIA system and can’t actually do much to help except take a message, ask the analyst, and call the requester back to repeat what the analyst said. This causes problems when you’re calling to try and discuss the request with the person who is actually processing it, such as to figure out which part they thought needed clarification or something similar. You go through this middle man every time, and after 5-6 pointless telephone discussions you finally give up and ask, “Why won’t the analyst just call me to answer my questions?” only to receive the answer “Because that’s not the way we do things.” Some agencies won’t even give you the analyst’s name.

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