Letting the Sun Shine on the FOIA

March 14-20, 2021, is Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to promote open government and recognize that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which provides the public with access to agency records, is a fundamental component in ensuring government transparency and accountability.

Since 1967, the FOIA has provided a window into agency policy and decision making, so the public may be educated and informed on the workings of bureaucracy. Allowing the sun to shine on the actions of government is an astute metaphor that inspired the name of Sunshine Week.


In the below Q&A, Deputy Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer Rachel Spector, in the picture above, discusses how FOIA works and why accountability matters.

Q: Happy Sunshine Week! Tell us what you do as a Deputy Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer (DCFO) for Interior.

A: In my role as DCFO, I run the Departmental FOIA Office (DFO), which was recently established to provide central governance and support to the FOIA offices in the Department’s component Bureaus/Offices. The DFO works with the FOIA Officers, who oversee the FOIA programs in their Bureaus/Offices, to develop effective policies and efficient best practices for FOIA request processing and engages with the FOIA Officers in collective problem-solving to identify, prioritize, and address the challenges they face. The DFO also works with Bureau/Office leadership to ensure that FOIA offices are sufficiently resourced. In addition, the DFO oversees the deployment of modern technology to facilitate efficient FOIA request tracking, case management, and processing, and provides targeted operational support to address large backlogs or complex issues.

Q: How does the FOIA support government transparency?

A: The FOIA allows the public to see what their government is up to by providing access to agency records. In a democracy, people can make informed choices if they know how their elected Executive Branch leaders implement the law. Releasing agency records under FOIA is a fundamental part of ensuring that democracy continues to function.

Sun shines over the trees at Shenandoah National Park.

Q: How does the FOIA work and what is the process for requesting information?

A: Anyone may make a FOIA request. The FOIA is not concerned with who requesters are or whether they have a good reason for wanting the records. Requesters are entitled to receive responsive records unless the records are protected by any of nine statutory exemptions. These exemptions protect certain records from disclosure, such as personal information about individuals that does not shed light on the government’s work, classified materials, and confidential business information. To file a FOIA request with a DOI component, anyone can go to www.FOIAonline.gov and fill out a simple form to submit their request.

Q: Once the Department or a bureau receives a FOIA request, how is it processed?

A: Generally, the FOIA offices in the Department’s component bureaus/offices work with the program offices to collect the records that are responsive to the FOIA request. Then, the FOIA processing staff review and analyze the records to determine whether any portions of them should be withheld from disclosure based on the nine exemptions in the FOIA statute. The Office of the Solicitor reviews any proposed withholdings to ensure that they are legally justified. The FOIA office then releases the records to the requester. Some records are also posted proactively on the Department’s FOIA libraries.

Q: The Department has a significant number of pending FOIA requests. What steps is the agency taking to process requests in a timely manner?

A: Several years ago, the Department (along with many other Federal agencies) experienced a sharp increase in the number of incoming FOIA requests. The increase overwhelmed many of the FOIA offices, resulting in a backlog of pending requests. Many of our FOIA offices are still digging out from those backlogs. The DFO is working with them to address the backlogs by establishing best practices, leveraging technology, ensuring adequate staffing, and, in some instances, providing operational support to process the backlogged requests.


Q: What are some ways that you are deploying modern technology to facilitate efficient FOIA request tracking and processing?

A: The DFO is actively pursuing technological improvements on multiple fronts. One example is the tracking and case management system that the DFO implemented at the end of last summer, FOIAonline.gov. FOIAonline enables requesters to submit their requests through an online portal, which they can also use to communicate with the FOIA offices, monitor the progress of their requests, and search for other requests that may be of interest to them. It is also a case management tool that enables better oversight and workflow management by the FOIA offices.

Q. What is your favorite FOIA moment?

A: A great FOIA moment for me is when the interests of the FOIA requesters and the FOIA specialists processing their requests converge. For example, FOIA requesters may not know how to frame a FOIA request and may ask for any and all records on a given issue, when they are really interested in something very specific. That approach results in the collection of thousands of pages of records that take a long time to review. At the end of the day, the requester is disappointed not only because the response is slow, but also because many of the records are not what they were really looking for. So, for me, a great FOIA moment is when the FOIA offices are able to engage with requesters to help them target their requests and get the records they really want as quickly as possible.

Employee looking through a folder of papers.

Q: How can Interior employees be good FOIA citizens?  

A: Interior employees should be sure to respond in a timely way to requests for records from their FOIA office. The FOIA has strict timelines for responding to FOIA requests – generally 20 workdays – and the FOIA offices do not stand a chance of meeting that requirement without timely cooperation.

Employees should search carefully for records that are responsive to FOIA requests and ask the FOIA office questions when unsure about how to do that. It is very important to not indiscriminately dump records on the FOIA office and expect them to sort through and determine which ones are responsive.

In addition, when employees provide responsive records to the FOIA offices, they should tell the FOIA office anything they may need to know to process the records effectively, such as contextual information that might not be apparent on the face of the records or if any of the records have already been publicly released.