Records Management and FOIA: So Happy Together

Today on Records Express, guest author Alina M. Semo, Director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Ombudsman’s office, discusses the vital role records management teams play in agencies’ responses to FOIA requests. You can read more about OGIS’s work at The FOIA Ombudsman and on their main website.

If the sunlight seems a little brighter this week, there are several good reasons for that—we have “sprung forward,” the weather is getting warmer (at least in Washington, DC), and it’s Sunshine Week. This annual initiative, observed at the Federal, state and local level, educates the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of unnecessary and excessive secrecy.

While Sunshine Week is most commonly associated with an agency’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) has consistently advocated that an efficient, responsive FOIA program relies on a strong, effective records management program. During Sunshine Week 2021 (March 14-20), OGIS and the Office of the Chief Records Officer for the United States Government (CRO) are collaborating on several projects to underscore the importance of records management to FOIA.

OGIS—the Federal FOIA Ombudsman—resolves FOIA disputes, identifies methods to improve compliance with the statute, and educates stakeholders about the FOIA process. OGIS has long been interested in the link between FOIA and records management programs. Our staff supports the FOIA Advisory Committee—which fosters dialogue between the Administration and the requester community, solicits public comments, and develops recommendations for improving FOIA administration and proactive disclosures. The 2018-2020 term of the Committee included a records management subcommittee which made a number of recommendations to strengthen the link between records management and FOIA programs. Their final report is posted on our website.

As the FOIA Ombudsman, OGIS researches and shares information about FOIA practices. Since 2016, OGIS has collaborated with CRO to gather government-wide information from records managers about FOIA administration. Data collected through FOIA questions included in the annual Records Management Self-Assessment (RMSA) complement the observations we make as the FOIA Ombudsman, working to improve the FOIA process for all.

Results of the 2019 RMSA, conducted in 2020, show that agencies across the government agree that FOIA and records management programs are an essential partnership. A majority of respondents (77 percent) reported that their agency records officers or records management staff have received formal or informal FOIA training, according to the report, Assessing Freedom of Information Act Compliance through the 2019 National Archives and Records Administration’s Records Management Self-Assessment. While this is reason to celebrate, there is still room for improvement—a majority of the respondents also reported not having indices to all major agency information systems or record locator information on their FOIA websites.

Just in time for Sunshine Week, the CRO’s office is offering this two-page tipsheet for how records management and FOIA teams can work together: RIM and FOIA Working Together: Key Tools.

While Sunshine Week offers a great opportunity to recognize the link between FOIA and records management, OGIS and CRO will continue to collaborate in the coming months. Watch for new briefing and training materials that will strengthen the connection between records management and FOIA programs. Stay tuned to Records Express and the FOIA Ombudsman for news and announcements.