A Deep Dive in the US’ National Action Plan: Professionalize FOIA

The September 20, 2011 National Action Plan (Plan) included 26 concrete commitments to make progress toward 17 larger goals that reflect the spirit of the Open Government Partnership, and much of our community’s broader vision. Our recently-released evaluation of the Administration's efforts to implement the Plan found that the government met the letter of most of its commitments, but the government's efforts could more correctly be labeled as "first steps" rather than the needed "leaps forward." We hope to give you a better sense of why we came to this conclusion by taking a deeper dive into the evaluation of the government's efforts for a few of these commitments. First up: Professionalize FOIA.

The government committed to “Professionalize FOIA Administration” as part of its work to meet the goal of improving administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The letter of the commitment was met with the release of a new civil service personnel category, called the Government Information Series, in March 2012.

A job series to promote FOIA professionalization had been a priority for many non-governmental organizations for several years. However, it must be said that issuing the job series is just the beginning of building a career track that promotes professionalization in FOIA. In order for the job series to have its intended effect, agency hiring managers must collaborate with agency FOIA personnel to make sure the government is able to find and retain the best qualified people. And there is, unfortunately, some evidence that such collaboration is not happening:

In a more promising vein, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) set up a working group including FOIA professionals and outside stakeholders to discuss challenges in implementing the job series and share ideas and best practices.

Beyond implementing the job series, however, there are other steps the government should take to make sure all agency personnel understand, and respect, their responsibilities under the FOIA. FOIA processors must rely of other agency employees to properly manage and search records and hand over responsive documents in a timely manner. Employees could be encouraged to be more helpful by including FOIA compliance and assistance as a factor in job performance reviews for all employees with information management responsibilities.

The government still has lots to do to professionalize FOIA, and even more to do to meet its larger goals for improving the FOIA process. We are working with our partners and other civil society organizations to develop recommendations for the 2nd National Action Plan. We hope that the next round of commitments move the government further along the road toward openness and accountability.

Download the Entire Evaluation HERE.

See our graphic to explore our process and results: Growing Open Government

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