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Speeding Up Response to FoIA Requests

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Speeding Up Response to FoIA Requests

Article excerpt

All Justice Department employees who play any role in handling Freedom of Information Act requests, for the first time ever, will be rated on how quickly, thoroughly and efficiently they handle the request.

The order, issued by Attorney General Janet Reno, will make such efficient handling part of the staffers' job descriptions and it will be considered in their job evaluations.

"Timely performance of our responsibilities to FoIA/PA [Privacy Act] requesters requires more than the efforts of Fola personnel; it requires the cooperation of all non-FoIA personnel who receive, transmit and review potentially releasable information," Reno wrote in her memo outlining the plan.

"Our analysis of the historic FoIA/PA backlog problem in the department has shown that steps taken before the actual processing stage by FoIA personnel contribute to significant delay in responding to requesters," she continued.

Each component head - including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Marshalls Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service - was directed to develop new, mandatory performance standards for all employees, even non-FoIA personnel, involved in processing the requests.

In the past, only those staffers who processed requests full time were held up to performance standards and graded on how well they did.

"I want to emphasize the fact that we all have a role in making FoIA work," Reno stated.

Journalists praised the action, but also pointed out that it does not necessarily mean more information will be forthcoming.

Society of Professional Journalists president Reginald Stuart was so impressed by Reno's order - "I almost fainted when I read it," he said - that he sent her a letter commending the action.

"This is a major move forward by a key federal agency," said Stuart, assistant news editor for Knight-Ridder in Washington. "It's recognition that FoIA is important to restoring the public's trust in government.

"I hope other agencies will quickly follow suit and make FoIA compliance one of the yardsticks by which an employee's performance is measured," he added.

"I don't know anything on the horizon which prompted this, which is good. A good decision about making government more responsive should not be precipitated by necessity but by plain, old common sense. Maybe there was something lurking around that we don't know about, but this seems to be a plain, old, good decision based on common sense.

Stuart said that Reno "deserves a lot of praise" for this action.

"This says that everybody up and down the line is responsible for making it work", he said, adding, "It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get more information out of government, just more action out of government."

Stuart's accolades were mirrored by SPJ Freedom of Information chair Lucy Dalglish, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis.

"I think it's great", she said. "There are some things the Justice Department has done that are not wonderful, but one thing Reno has been good at is coming out and saying openness is valuable."

Dalglish pointed out that this action can be traced back to meetings in 1992, when journalists met with then-new administration officials to discuss access to information issues.

One suggestion was to make FoIA compliance part of someone's job description.

"I think she has done a lot just by setting a tone," Dalglish said of Reno. …

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