skip to content

Striking the Balance: Leveraging Technology, Training, and Talent in FOIA Management

A Conversation with Michael Sarich, Director of FOIA at the Department of Veterans Affairs

by Gina Jurva

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) upholds a crucial mission, as articulated by former President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address: a commitment to care for all who have served in the nation's military, including their families, caregivers, and survivors. This enduring promise sets the foundation for the VA's efforts to provide comprehensive support to veterans and their communities.

Integral to this mission is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which serves as a cornerstone for promoting transparency, accountability, and accessibility of information within the VA. 

By ensuring that information is readily available to veterans and their families, FOIA empowers them to access the support and resources they need to navigate various aspects of their lives.

At the forefront of this complex operation is Michael Sarich, the Director of FOIA at the VA.  Last year alone, the VA handled a staggering 80,000 FOIA inquiries, underscoring the immense demand for accessible information on everything from applying for benefits, tracking healthcare history, accessing military service information and much more.

Michael Sarich, FOIA Director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

In a recent conversation with Everlaw, Sarich delved into the intricacies of managing high-volume FOIA requests and shared innovative strategies employed by the VA to address this formidable task. Through his transformative leadership, the VA aims to streamline FOIA operations and better serve the needs of veterans and their families.

The VA receives a massive amount of FOIA requests. How does your department efficiently allocate staff and resources to handle the high volume of FOIA requests?

Great question. Ensuring effective resource allocation is a significant challenge faced across the federal landscape. At the VA, we adopt a holistic approach, leveraging data-driven decisions to place personnel where they can yield the most impactful results. Our strategy revolves around three pillars: technology, training, and talent. 

We want to make sure our people are armed with the best possible technology tailored to streamline FOIA requests. That requires that our employees are trained in that technology to maximize its utilization. And, of course, our emphasis on talent underscores the importance of having skilled individuals capable of executing our mission effectively.

This approach is not only guided by best FOIA practices but also by Section 406 of the Cleland-Dole Act, legislation specific to the VA aimed at enhancing our FOIA operations. Our goal is to achieve an average processing time of fewer than 20 days across all three categories, including simple, complex, and expedited requests. 

You’re not going to get to that target without proper resource allocation, combining the right technology, training, and talent. Ultimately, our commitment to data-driven decision-making remains pivotal in optimizing our FOIA processing efficiency.

Can you elaborate on the steps your department has taken to enhance transparency and accountability, particularly regarding FOIA requests? This includes initiatives like providing regular updates on request statuses, publishing annual reports, and maintaining the goal of processing requests within 20 days. 

Absolutely, Gina. Transparency and accountability are paramount in our department's approach to FOIA requests. I’m extraordinarily proud of our FOIA officer’s hard work throughout the enterprise. 

We've implemented several strategies to ensure transparency and streamline the FOIA process. The first is proactive disclosure, where we make information of significant public interest readily available without the need for a formal request. This approach, in line with the FOIA Act, ensures that important information is accessible to the public. 

Additionally, we diligently track FOIA requests and make sure that information requested three or more times is available in our public reading rooms. By proactively posting such information, we not only fulfill requests more efficiently but also enhance transparency. 

You’re not going to get to that target without proper resource allocation, combining the right technology, training, and talent.

This helps us on the back end, too. If the information is readily available and the request comes in, we can simply direct the requester to the URL. At that point, one of two things will happen. Either the requestor will be satisfied with the information out there or will come back with a more targeted request which is great for us because then we are answering two or three questions versus 40 or more requests. It’s better for the public and better for us. That’s a really cool proposition. 

The other piece we've established are “requester portals,” which allows individuals to track the status of their FOIA requests in real-time. This self-service approach empowers requesters to monitor progress independently, reducing the need for direct communication and streamlining the process for both parties. If a person wants to know what’s happening with their request, BOOM! They can log in and find out. You will know where it is at any point in time. 

We believe that transparency builds trust, enabling us to better serve even more of our fellow veterans.

Furthermore, while we provide estimated completion dates for FOIA requests, we acknowledge the dynamic nature of the process and potential delays. However, through our requester portals, requesters can stay informed about the status of their requests 24/7 without the need for frequent follow-ups. 

Overall, these efforts underscore our commitment to transparency and accountability, ensuring that we effectively communicate with the public and build trust in our processes. We believe that transparency builds trust, enabling us to better serve even more of our fellow veterans. We want to encourage veterans to come to the VA and get the services they’ve earned through their sacrifices. 

Explain how your department prioritizes FOIA requests, considering the potentially sensitive nature of the information involved. What factors influence this prioritization process?

Certainly. With FOIA, it’s pretty easy. Our department operates on a first-in, first-out basis for FOIA requests, encompassing simple, complex, and expedited processing. During events like the pandemic, requests meeting strict criteria for expedited processing, such as those involving imminent risk to life or from members of the news media who needed to get information to the public, receive priority. While news media's reach has expanded since FOIA's inception in 1966 when signed into law by then-President Johnson, we still honor expedited processing for urgent matters. Our overall approach is equitable, ensuring fairness to all requesters, while prioritizing urgent cases when necessary. It's akin to managing accounts – orderly and systematic.

This is part one of a two-part interview. Join us next week as Sarich dives deeper into technology, AI, and overcoming the challenges of public records response at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

To learn more about how Everlaw can help government agencies speed up response times for FOIA or Public Records requests, request a demo today.