Play Under Review: Agency Use of “Still Interested” Letters

OGIS's review team will review if agency use of "still interested" letters is inside the strike zone.

OGIS’s plans to review if agency use of “still interested” letters is inside the strike zone. (NARA Identifier 6351809)

The use of “still interested” letters is a hot topic in the FOIA community, both with requesters and agencies.

In October 2014, about a dozen organizations representing the interests of the requester community wrote to the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) to request that we look into the use of these letters to administratively close requests. Nine months after OGIS received this request, the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice issued updated guidance on agency use of the letters. The guidance directs agencies to limit the use of the letters and improve communication with requesters.

In a recent letter responding to the organizations’ 2014 request, Director Holzer announced that OGIS’s review team will pay particular attention to this issue as we assess individual FOIA programs (including the six Department of Homeland Security components where reviews are underway or scheduled). He also said that the review team will analyze the use of “still interested” letters by agencies. The team hopes to release its findings by the end of the calendar year.

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Meet OGIS’s New Director, James Holzer

  • OGIS's new Director surveys the FOIA landscape (Obviously, this is not a photograph of Dr. Holzer). NARA Identifier 2130972

    OGIS’s new Director surveys the FOIA landscape (Obviously, this is not a photograph of Dr. Holzer). NARA Identifier 2130972

    How about we start off by asking you to tell us a little about yourself?

Most importantly, I’m a family man. I have three kids and a wonderful wife.

I’m originally from California and lived a number of places during my thirteen years as a part of the Air Force, including Florida, England, the Azores islands, and a stint back in my home state. I also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • What was your first experience with the Freedom of Information Act?

I processed FOIA requests while I was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base. During that time I primarily dealt with requests for contracts and records related to personnel issues. There was not much of a training program at the time, and I still remember spreading out records across the floor to try to figure out how they should be organized and handled.

I was hired by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a FOIA processor in 2009. When I started the journey from California to the East Coast with my family, I still did not have a start date at DHS, or any place to live. Luckily, by the time we hit Arizona we had a place to move into, and by the time we hit Arkansas I had a start date. While I was at DHS, I began assisting with our annual reports to the Department of Justice and became very interested in how making good use of the right metrics can improve the FOIA process.

  • We understand that you were a key proponent of using technology to improve FOIA requester’s experience and improve the process. Can you tell us about some of those projects?

Technology is not a silver bullet, but it has great potential. I believe that one of the important factors in using technology is being clear about the problem you are trying to solve.

While at DHS, I spearheaded the deployment of an enterprise-wide FOIA processing solution, the development of an online form that enabled FOIA requesters to submit requests to any DHS component, an online check status feature, a redesign of the DHS FOIA Office website, and the proactive posting of thousands of pages of records. These efforts were aimed at improving DHS’ responsiveness, helping requesters navigate the process and improving the requester experience.

  • How does your background and schooling inform your current work?

My experience in the military informs much of my world view. I benefitted greatly from having the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people and I gained an understanding and appreciation of organizational structure and hierarchies. Most of all, my experience taught me the importance of having a clear mission, and using appropriate tools to accomplish goals in support of that mission.

Similarly, when I received my Doctorate of Management from the University of Maryland, University College, my dissertation focused on strategy formulation in the public sector. Success in the public sector, similar to success in the private sector, is dependent on having a vision and an outline for how to get there. Creating change in the federal government is dependent on consistently making small changes over time.

  • What are you particularly excited about doing in your new role at OGIS?

I am excited to be working at the National Archives, which provides me an opportunity to have a much larger impact across agencies, and to do more to help improve the FOIA process for agencies and requesters alike.

As I continue to settle into my new role at OGIS, I look forward to talking with our stakeholders about what changes are needed in the FOIA landscape, and how OGIS can contribute.

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Archivist Appoints New OGIS Director

Please join us in welcoming  OGIS' new Director, James Holzer!

Please join us in welcoming OGIS’ new Director, James Holzer!

Archivist of the United States David Ferriero announced the appointment of James Holzer as the Director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) on July 21, 2015, effective August 9. We hope all of you will join us in welcoming Dr. Holzer to the OGIS staff!

Dr. Holzer comes to OGIS from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Privacy Office, where he has served as the Senior Director of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Operations. While at DHS, Dr. Holzer supervised a team of FOIA professionals and served as the senior advisor to DHS’ executive-level leaders on FOIA and the Privacy Act. He also spearheaded a number of initiatives to improve implementation of FOIA across DHS.

Prior to joining the DHS, Dr. Holzer served in the U.S. Air Force for 13 years on active duty. He earned a Doctorate of Management at University of Maryland, University College, and also holds a Master of Human Relations degree from the University of Oklahoma, and a B.S. in Business from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

In announcing the appointment, the Archivist noted, “Dr. Holzer’s experience administering FOIA and his demonstrated commitment to transparency will benefit OGIS, the National Archives, and the American public.”

Dr. Holzer will be OGIS’ second director. Miriam Nisbet, who opened the Office in 2009, retired in late 2014.

Welcome, Dr. Holzer!

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The Best Laid Plans: Public National Action Plan Session Set for July 30

Grab a seat at the table to discuss the 3rd US National Action Plan on July 30! (NARA Identifier 6010304)

Grab a seat at the table to discuss the 3rd US National Action Plan on July 30! (NARA Identifier 6010304)

The White House will host a public meeting Thursday July 30 at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to gather ideas on steps the government should take to make itself more open and accountable. RSVP now to reserve your seat for the 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. session!

In October the Administration will release the third U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government. Like the first and second National Action Plans, the new plan must include commitments to specific action over the following two years. These plans relate to a wide variety of issues—from modernizing FOIA to improving public participation in government.

For those of you that cannot attend the meeting, you can keep up with the conversation in real-time by watching it on Livestream (https://www.whitehouse.gov/live). You can also always add your input by on a number of topics, including FOIA, using the collaborative website Hackpad.

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FOIA Gets an Online Makeover for its 49th Birthday!

FOIA's new online makeover aims to be a hit with the public (NARA Identifier 5957435)

FOIA’s new online makeover aims to be a hit with the public (NARA Identifier 5957435)

Just days after FOIA celebrated its 49th birthday on July 4, the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) announced a pilot project aimed at improving government transparency by making almost all records released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) available to anyone online. FOIA offices in seven agencies, including the Office of General Counsel at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), are participating in the effort.

Currently agencies are encouraged to post records on their websites if they have been requested three or more times. A number of efforts over the last few years have encouraged agencies to make better use of the Internet to improve public understanding of the government’s decisions and actions. For example, all agencies participating in FOIAonline— the multi-agency platform that allows users to submit FOIA requests to any participating agency—have the option of publishing any released record to a central searchable repository. A subcommittee of the FOIA Advisory Committee (which is managed by OGIS) is exploring issues related to posting records released under FOIA. And in March 2014, the Department of Justice issued updated guidance to agencies on improving proactive disclosures.

According to the OIP announcement, the pilot projects will:

“answer many important questions, including: costs associated with such a policy, effect on staff time required to process requests, effect on interactions with government stakeholders, and the justification for exceptions to such a policy, such as for personal privacy. For privacy reasons, participating agencies will not post online responses to requests in which individuals seek access to information about themselves.”

Implementation of the pilots and the results will be available to the public. Members of the public are encouraged to send their feedback, including suggestions for the metrics that agencies should collect, to releasetoall@usdoj.gov.

For more information on how the pilot project will be carried out at NARA, please check out the announcement on the National Archives Blog, NARAtions.

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FOIA Advisory Committee to Meet on 7/21 in Washington, DC

National Archives and Records Administration LogoThe Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee will hold on open meeting at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Building, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in the Archivist’s Reception Room (Room 105) from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. (EDT) on Tuesday, July 21, 2015.

The Committee will discuss the topics on which the Committee is focusing its efforts to improve FOIA administration throughout the Executive Branch: oversight and accountability, fees, and proactive disclosures. Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, will give introductory comments.

Due to space limitations and access requirements, members of the public planning to attend the meeting must register via Eventbrite.

Eventbrite - Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee Meeting - July 21, 2015

Please direct any questions or comments concerning the meeting to Christa Lemelin, Designated Federal Officer, FOIA Advisory Committee at 202-741-5773 or by email at christa.lemelin@nara.gov.


Reminder: FOIA Advisory Committee Surveys
If you are a FOIA Public Liaison (FPL) or a FOIA professional, we encourage you complete the Committee’s FPL and/or Fees surveys if you have not done so already. If you did not receive a survey, please contact Christa Lemelin at christa.lemelin@nara.gov. The surveys close on June 22, 2015. Thank you to those of you who have and will
complete the surveys. Your feedback is crucial and valued!

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FOIA: There’s an app for that!

DHS eFOIA Website Screen Shot

With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has come the development of mobile apps for everything, it seems; now you can add FOIA to that list.

This week the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the release of its new eFOIA mobile app. The app, the result of a partnership between the DHS Privacy Office and the DHS Office of the Chief Information Officer, is part of DHS’s efforts to improve customer service, modernize the FOIA process, and promote open government.

The DHS eFOIA Mobile App will allow users to submit FOIA requests or check the status of requests, access the content on the DHS FOIA website, and receive updates, event notices, and recently published documents.


Reminder: FOIA Advisory Committee Surveys
If you are a FOIA Public Liaison (FPL) or a FOIA professional, we encourage you complete the Committee’s FPL and/or Fees surveys if you have not done so already. If you did not receive a survey, please contact Christa Lemelin at christa.lemelin@nara.gov. The surveys close on June 22, 2015. Thank you to those of you who have and will complete the surveys. Your feedback is crucial and valued!

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Where Can I Get Basic FOIA Facts?

Take a look inside for some facts on where to find what basic  FOIA information!  (NARA Identifier 7859193)

Take a look inside for some basic facts on where to find what basic FOIA information! (NARA Identifier 7859193)

A little over a month ago, 18F—the digital services shop at the General Services Administration that’s modeled after tech-sector start-ups—released openFOIA. This website gives requesters a central location to learn how to make Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to any of the 100 federal departments and agencies that process public requests for records.

The release of openFOIA helps meet one of the commitments to “Modernize the FOIA” included in the second U.S. Open Government National Action Plan. As we let our blog readers know recently, these commitments are a part of a much larger international effort to make governments more open and accountable. 18F developed openFOIA in consultation with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and made its work available to the public via GitHub.

OpenFOIA has some things in common with existing government websites that are intended to help FOIA requesters. In particular, it can be easy to confuse the new site with FOIA.gov, a DOJ-operated site and FOIAonline, an online portal requesters can use to make and track requests at 11 departments and agencies.

To help clear up any confusion between the sites, here’s a chart with some of their key features and uses:

Website_chart

Do you have any suggestions for how we can make it easier for the public to understand and use FOIA? Let us know in the comments!

Posted in About FOIA, FOIAOnline, Open Government | 3 Comments

FOIA Advisory Committee Surveys: Examining the FOIA Landscape

Photograph of District Ranger Harley Hamm Using a Surveying Compass

Surveying the FOIA landscape! (NARA Identifier: 2130973)

As we’ve previously mentioned, two subcommittees of the FOIA Advisory Committee — Oversight and Accountability, and Fees — have developed surveys to learn more about the areas they are examining. These surveys were recently sent to FOIA Public Liaisons (FPLs) and Federal FOIA professionals across the government.

The purpose of the FPL survey is to obtain information about the role of FPLs in the FOIA process and how the position functions in the Executive Branch. While the FPL role was described in an Executive Order (Executive Order 13392, Improving Organization Disclosure of Information) and legislation (the OPEN Government of Act of 2007), the Committee has observed that how FPLs work within a particular agency seems to vary widely. The survey results will provide valuable insight into how FPLs are accomplishing their statutory role of reducing delays, increasing transparency, understanding the status of FOIA requests and resolving FOIA disputes.

FOIA fees remain a source of much confusion for requesters and agencies. The goal of the FOIA Fees survey is to gather information about the administration of FOIA fees and its impact on the Executive Branch. The Fees Subcommittee hopes that the results of the survey will suggest new approaches to this tricky FOIA issue.

OGIS and the FOIA Advisory Committee look forward to sharing the results of the surveys with the public; in the meantime, the draft FPL and draft fees surveys are available on the FOIA Advisory Committee’s website.

If you a FOIA Public Liaison, you should have received both surveys by email within the last week; other Federal FOIA professionals should have received the FOIA Fees survey from a supervisor. We asked that FPLs forward the survey to the FOIA professionals within their organizations. If you fall into either of these categories but did not receive the survey(s), please contact Christa Lemelin at christa.lemelin@nara.gov. The survey closes on June 22, 2015. Thank you in advance to those of you participating in the surveys!

Please visit the FOIA Advisory Committee’s webpage, including the Contact Us/Submit Comments page, for information about the Committee and how you can get involved and make your voice heard by submitting comments to the Committee. We post public comments submitted to the Committee and we would love to hear your thoughts on improving FOIA oversight and administration.

Posted in About FOIA, Customer service, Fees, FOIA Advisory Committee, FOIA Public Liaisons | 5 Comments

How Would You Modernize FOIA?

Have an idea for how to improve FOIA? Let us know! (NARA Identifier 521689)

Have an idea for how to improve FOIA? Let us know! (NARA Identifier 521689)

As we’ve noted previously, the United States is a part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a global effort to make governments more open and accountable to the public.  Countries that participate in OGP are required to develop and carry out action plans that include concrete commitments to make the government—you guessed it—more open.

These plans are called National Action Plans and they generally include a range of commitments the government will carry out over a two-year period. The United States is reaching the halfway point of its second National Action Plan, and is already beginning to think about what should go into the third plan.

This is where we need your help.

As you might remember, the first two U.S. National Action Plans included commitments to modernize administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)— including one that led to the creation of the federal FOIA Advisory Committee. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), with help from the General Services Administration, recently launched an effort using the collaborative web site hackpad to gather ideas from anyone inside or outside government about how we can continue to make FOIA work better. (You will need to create an account on that site before viewing and contributing to content on that platform.) Ideas can also be submitted via Twitter to @OpenGov or email to opengov@ostp.gov.

A number of factors will go into the final decision about what commitments make it into the third National Action Plan. We encourage you to read OSTP’s blog post to learn more about OGP and OSTP’s guidance on commitments.

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