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Striking the Balance, Part Two: 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

In Part One of this interview, we explored Michael Sarich's role as Director of the Freedom of Information Act at the Veterans Affairs, where he oversees a significant volume of requests, ensures transparency, and prioritizes urgent inquiries.

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

Now, in the continuation of our discussion, we delve into Sarich's advocacy for technological advancements within the VA, the integration of artificial intelligence in request processing, and his vision of the future of technology within the agency.

Can you elaborate on the role of technology in your FOIA process and offer advice for smaller agencies with mostly manual FOIA processes?

Absolutely. Technology is indispensable in our FOIA operations, alongside talent and training. As the co-chair of our technology committee, I advocate strongly for its importance. Technology acts as a force multiplier, enabling us to handle the increasing volume and complexity of FOIA requests. Originally, FOIA envisioned processing a few memos, but today's demands are vastly different, requiring robust email search capabilities and efficient workflows. I draw parallels between FOIA and ediscovery workflows, advocating for their integration to enhance FOIA processing efficiency. Without embracing technology, agencies risk inefficiency and backlog accumulation. While our main mission is serving veterans, FOIA remains vital, and leveraging technology allows us to fulfill FOIA obligations effectively, even with limited resources.

How important is artificial intelligence in the FOIA process? 

Extremely. President Biden's executive order on AI underscores the importance of technological advancement in government operations. As federal employees, it's our duty to align with the President's directives and fully implement his orders. This executive order serves as a blueprint for AI implementation, providing clear guidance and directives.

Originally, FOIA envisioned processing a few memos, but today's demands are vastly different...

Leveraging this order, senior federal program leaders are championing technological adoption, recognizing its significance in enhancing government efficiency. The transparency and clarity of the government's approach to AI implementation are commendable, setting a positive precedent for future advancements.

You’ve achieved a tremendous amount in your career. One of the highlights includes reducing the FOIA backlog at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) by over 90% in just 14 months – an incredible milestone. Can you share specific technological advancements that played a key role in this accomplishment?

The reduction of the FOIA backlog was a concerted effort in response to congressional directives. While the law mandating a 75% backlog reduction over three years did not pass, the congressional intent was clear, and we took it seriously. The critical technological advancements were not just about software upgrades but rather about leveraging relationships and optimizing existing tools. Building strong relationships with over 300 individuals across 150 facilities and 12 time zones was essential. We provided support, training, and assistance to ensure everyone understood and utilized our FOIA case processing system to its full potential.

Our approach involved a phased implementation, rolling out full system utilization over a six-month period. By working closely with teams and offering dedicated support, we achieved a critical mass of adoption. This allowed for seamless communication and assistance, even across long distances. 

The critical technological advancements were not just about software upgrades but rather about leveraging relationships and optimizing existing tools.

Additionally, we recognized the importance of motivation and recognition in driving results. We celebrated achievements, motivated team members, and fostered a sense of community, which significantly contributed to our success.

In essence, while technology played a role, the real key to success was building strong relationships, empowering our team, and fostering a collaborative environment focused on a shared goal: providing the best possible service to our military veterans. 

What other key challenges do you face at the VA? 

One significant challenge many departments face, including ours, is the evolving landscape of remote work policies. With varying approaches across agencies, recruitment and workload management become increasingly complex. While some departments embrace full-time remote work, others require on-site presence, each with its own rationale.

The lack of uniformity in remote work policies can lead to recruitment challenges and limit the talent pool available. Additionally, maintaining a balance between technological solutions and human resources is crucial. While technology enhances efficiency, it ultimately requires skilled individuals to operate effectively.

Furthermore, the conservative nature of senior decision-makers in federal agencies often leads to cautious adoption of AI and other advanced technologies. Therefore, investing in flexible hiring practices and prioritizing a balance between technology and human capital can mitigate these challenges.

Ultimately, the key lies in maintaining flexibility in hiring practices to attract and retain talent from diverse locations while leveraging technology to enhance efficiency without overlooking the value of human expertise and interaction.

How do you foresee technology playing a role in the future of handling sensitive data, particularly within departments like yours?

I believe technology, particularly large language models, will fundamentally change the landscape. These models will likely operate in a closed environment, given the deeply personal information we handle about millions of individuals. 

Access to data will be highly secure, allowing for quick retrieval of records when needed, with automated redaction to protect privacy. So when Sergeant John Smith requests records, we will be able to retrieve them very quickly. 

But it’s not only the speed but the accuracy which will be key, enhancing our ability to respond to requests efficiently. We’ll see the real transformation with general FOIA requests. Often requestors don’t know exactly what they want, so they end up going through a lot of stuff that’s unnecessary. 

I believe technology, particularly large language models, will fundamentally change the landscape.

As precision improves over time, we'll better meet requester needs, particularly for FOIA inquiries. This aligns with President Biden's vision for AI, which our department fully supports, ensuring data protection remains paramount as we leverage technology to make a positive impact. We’re following through on all of these protections and utilizing those guardrails because we have a huge amount of sensitive information related to veterans– whether it’s medical or financial, it’s part of a sacred trust, and it's our obligation to make sure it’s protected.