The federal government’s chief FOIA administrator spoke with members of the requester community Wednesday at its "FOIA Requester Roundtable," outlining strides the office is making to improve the Freedom of Information Act and asking where it falls short.
Melanie Pustay and her Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department guide the other federal agencies on following and implementing FOIA law and policy. She spoke about the recent steps OIP and the government generally have taken to interpret and implement FOIA since President Obama took office and began issuing his transparency promises.
Pustay noted that what are arguably the best changes in terms of opening up government — restoring the presumption of disclosure and directing discretionary release of information — may also further contribute to what are widely known as two of the biggest problems with FOIA: backlogs and delays.
"This new procedure to disclose more will take a little bit longer," she said. "We no longer just apply an exemption, now we will look to see if something can come out and for that we may have to consult with others" or engage in additional steps of review, she added.
About 25 requesters who attended the meeting — open to the public but with limited registration — peppered Pustay with questions and concerns for about an hour after her initial talk. With backlogs and delay as a recurring theme, Pustay did point out a change her office added to the reporting process this year: it will require agencies to report the number of backlogged requests it has in the queue so those numbers can be compared from year to year.
"Overall, the government processed far more requests than it received" in the last year, she said. "Agencies are moving the requests out of the backlogs."
One way requesters can help with that, Pustay said, is to work with the agencies when contacted to narrow their requests or help focus them on what exactly is of interest, rather than insist on the broad elements that requesters generally include to ensure their desired records will surface.
Technology was another focus of discussion as Pustay acknowledged that many agencies lack the necessary tools to make the process move more quickly and efficiently. She said she hopes the new request status trackers will eventually work like the update system that Domino’s Pizza has in place on its site, constantly updating customers on where exactly their pizza is — in the oven, in the box, on the delivery truck. Pustay said she would like to see requesters able to track precisely where in the process their requests sit.
Concerns were also raised about uniformity among agencies in how they accept requests and in their methods of contacting requesters much later to determine whether they are still interested in filling the request.
Pustay said she plans to host additional requester roundtables in the future.