FOIA Friday: tracking trouble with a FOIA tracking log
Freedom of Information Act requests can be a lot of trouble. They are often returned slowly and at great expense, and people who file a lot of requests like Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader are seen as trouble by the powerful elected officials he reports on. Mick knows that Mayor Daley is not one his favorites because at a recent press conference the mayor picked up a rifle with a bayonet attached to it and pointed it at him.
Generally, reporters and citizens don't bother with the FOIA process if they can find out information any possible other way.
The FOIA process can be seen as a trouble tracking system. You, the requester, are the trouble; your report has to be taken in, understood, entered into a database and then tracked until its eventual resolution and completion. If there are any expenses involved, someone has to pay for them.
I've worked in customer service environments before, where the daily workload involved taking careful bug and trouble reports, filing them in our request tracking system and making sure that important problems got worked on promptly. At various times I've opened trouble tickets, closed trouble tickets, run reports on the trouble queue to see what needed to be unstuck, and looked at the whole process to see what systematic issues needed to be addressed proactively instead of one at a time as complaints came in.
Here are some perspectives on understanding the FOIA tracking process. One point of view is from the agency, which has to deal with incoming requests and field them as required. The other point of view is from the citizen or reporter making requests, who has to make sense of the sometimes Byzantine bureaucracy which is answering its carefully written requests for information.
The responding agency
Every agency subject to FOIA requests in any quantity provides the public with a standard form to submit requests. This form matches some of the internal record keeping and accounting used to process the request, and is often used as a cover sheet as documents or records are passed from hand to hand to compile a request.
The most essential element of any tracking system is a tracking number or ID. With this unique identifier, the organization can go back to an original request and reference it in a way that's unambiguous and quick to retrieve. You'll get these from airlines, insurance companies and other organizations that deal with trouble all the time as a matter of routine. The response you get from an agency to a FOIA request should include a tracking number; just to be safe, your original request should include a tracking number of its own that matches whatever filing system you have set up.
Depending on the volume of FOIA requests that an agency gets, its methods for tracking requests will vary. Some have very competent systems for handling inbound requests and responding in a timely manner. Others have complex, incoherent workflow that appears from the outside to be deliberately designed to frustrate and circumvent requests for information. Very complex systems designed for large agencies with a lot of workflow will often be built on top of other systems for customer relationship management. They will be able to assign work to people, track it to completion, run reports to see the status of work in progress and provide an audit trail to prove compliance with all applicable laws. The process is roughly as complex as getting a permit to demolish a house, and it can have as many people signing off on it if the query touches many departments or requires legal review.
Uncomplicated systems that are still effective can be built as simply as updating a spreadsheet with the necessary information in one place. Almost every organized workflow also has to deal with tracking paper documents through the system and accounting for the costs of reviewing and duplicating documents.
The worst possible system that could possibly work is a designated FOIA officer's personal e-mail inbox.
The person making a request
The reporter or citizen who is filing requests regularly should also track their requests. The more frequent the requests, the more it pays to be thorough and thoughful. If you are filing a request every day, like the new weblog "FOIA Geek" promises to do, you start with a crate with a folder for each request. Keep all of the paperwork together for each request, and log all of your correspondence to print. No electronics needed; you could do this all with a typewriter and a sheaf of postage stamps.
Requests from a group of people working together can be coordinated with a spreadsheet. I've seen citizen groups share a Google spreadsheet where they parceled out portions of a very large request into smaller chunks so that each request came in under a zero cost threshold for response.
Writing about FOIA requests which are in progress in your blog can be another way of tracking how things happen. Noticing that organizations have rejected your FOIA request, and publishing the contents of the rejection letter, can be sufficient in some cases to assist you in gaining support for an appeal.
When the story that you have written is done, consider publishing the documents that you received on an online site like the Ann Arbor Area Government Document Repository.
Follow the money
It goes without saying that if you are expecting to be reimbursed for your troubles, you should keep a record of the correspondence to back up your expense. Large and complicated FOIA requests can generate demands for payment from government agencies, and if someone other than you needs to approve the expense or pay for the effort, a compact, concise, thorough paper trail will help.
If your request goes horribly wrong and you have to go through all of the trouble to go to court with an attorney to get access to the documents which you are entitled to under law, you are entitled to damages. From the Michigan Attorney General:
"If the circuit court finds that the public body has arbitrarily and capriciously violated the Freedom of Information Act by refusal or delay in disclosing or providing copies of a public record, it may, in addition to any actual or compensatory damages, award punitive damages of $500 to the person seeking the right to inspect or receive a copy of a public record."
Keep track of what you spend.