The latest Justice Department Office of Information Policy Annual FOIA Report shows that in FY 2014, there were about 160,000 unanswered FOIA requests. The Department of Homeland Security reported the highest logjam of requests (103,480) with about 65% of the total. This should be considered unacceptable. Below is my experience and some ways for improvement.

I was looking for data on the number of compliments the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) each month over a four-year period. Knowing the FOIA process fairly well, I tried to avoid the TSA FOIA queue and contacted the agency directly. TSA already releases customer service complaint data to the public. Therefore, I reasoned, there should be no additional issues (e.g., security and privacy) with releasing compliment data.

My request was denied. I was informed that to obtain the information I wanted, I would need to submit a FOIA request.

The agency’s decision not to honor my initial request might stem from the underlying culture of risk-aversion that seems to be pervasive throughout many parts of the federal government. Although it can be human nature to hesitate or not act so as to avoid a wrong decision, sometimes not acting is the wrong decision altogether, especially when an opportunity to obtain positive results is missed.

Given that TSA already releases complaint data, it is hard to make the argument against releasing compliment data, especially when it could be considered an opportunity where the benefits far outweigh the costs. Providing the public with customer service compliment data should be considered a smart risk.

I can think of four reasons why taking a smart risk like this might be good for the agency.

  1. Risk taking might result in innovation and could result in testing new ideas and processes. In my case, making customer service compliment data public, just like the already released complaint data, allows all parties to understand the advantages and disadvantages of different programs by managing from the data. Making the data public encourages innovation forums where the American public and government employees can collaborate on new ideas for providing better service. Most importantly, there could be economic advantages to the United States as a result of better managing from this data.
  2. Risk taking builds employee confidence. This is especially true in those instances where smart risk taking has not been built into each employee’s annual performance plan and appraisal. Employees who encourage an idea and transform it into tangible results should sense some confidence in taking smart risks. Maybe employees should be educated on what kind of risks to take, when to take them, and how to weigh the benefits versus the costs.
  3. Smart risks could increase the demand for the services of that office. Some offices who manage the data currently provide it on an as-needed basis to requestors with limited follow-up analyses. More analysis providing additional insight could result in making better informed decisions and could create a demand for additional services from that office.
  4. Smart risk taking can improve customer satisfaction. When federal employees know that the private sector will come to them for information, they will also know that they are serving the private sector appropriately. None of this would occur without a certain amount of risk taking, and even if a mistake was made, then so be it. The key is to educate and encourage employees to take calculated and intelligent risks, keeping in mind the best interests of stakeholders.

My TSA example demonstrates the lack of passion for innovation and risk taking in the federal government. It is important for TSA (as well as other parts of the federal government) to encourage, exemplify and reward smart risk-taking. It might ultimately help reduce the backlog of TSA FOIA requests.