What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and why should you care?
Enacted in 1966, FOIA gives everyone rights to a federal agency's records upon request, and it is a key part of sustaining an open and transparent government. "Complying with FOIA is an important component of the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) mission to promote transportation safety," says FOIA Information Specialist Tamara Crawford of the Records Management Division. Her unit is responsible for managing each FOIA request the NTSB receives.
"What we do is very significant," Crawford adds. "The NTSB is mandated by Congress to make those records available to the public, and our goal is to be open with information concerning our agency."
Any person, citizen or not, can make a FOIA request, and the NTSB can receive upwards of 400 every year. Crawford and Joy White, another FOIA Information Specialist, process all these simple and complex requests for the agency. And what a process it is. Their work is far more than pushing paper. Once a request is received, they must gather and review documents, images and audio and video recordings in order to satisfy the request.
The work is tedious, yet necessary. Once an NTSB team has finished an investigation, Crawford and White meticulously review all the related materials to ensure every piece of sensitive information is identified and protected. An average investigation generates thousands of pages of documents – the NTSB FOIA Information Specialists read every word.
"If we have 5,000 pieces of paper, every piece of paper is touched – every last one of them is read, and we're doing that with two people," said Melba Moye, Records Management Division Chief and supervisor of the FOIA Information Specialists. "They do whatever it takes to get the job done."
Despite limited resources and increased volume and complexity of requests, the process has improved significantly. Over the last decade, sound human capital management and a much-needed upgrade to the tracking system have resulted in lowering NTSB's average response time for complex requests by over 50 percent.
Additionally, the backlog of 1,394 FOIA requests in 2005 has now been reduced to just 32. Moving forward, the Information Specialists remain focused on improving the overall timeliness and accuracy of their responses before they reach the backlog. By doing so, they are poised to succeed in making the NTSB a more open and transparent government agency.
As the workload continues to increase, the team is responding with the implementation of the new tracking software, proactive policy changes to include posting frequently requested items and NTSB dockets online for public viewing, and educating the public on the NTSB's FOIA process.
"Every time we process a request or complete an assignment ahead of time, we meet our goal of improving accountability and transparency," says Moye.