OGIS Releases Compliance Review of FEMA FOIA Program

OGIS's report on the FEMA FOIA program highlights the agency's best practices and includes recommendations for improvement (NARA identifier 7856316)

OGIS’s report highlights the FEMA FOIA program’s best practices and includes recommendations for improvement (NARA identifier 7856316)

We’re happy to announce the release of our assessment of the FOIA program at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is now public. As our regular blog readers may know, the assessment of FEMA is one of six compliance reports that we are working on and will publish in the coming months.

OGIS’s report includes a number of observations about FEMA’s FOIA program, including the agency’s best practices. Our report also includes a number of recommendations to improve the FEMA FOIA program. A few of these recommendations are:

  • Track volume of records processed and use volume as a management and oversight control tool
  • Create a triage process that queues complex and simple requests based on the number of responsive pages or the topic of the request
  • Overhaul the agency’s FOIA website to help reduce the office’s administrative burden and increase requester knowledge about FOIA
  • Create a policy or procedure to regularly identify records to be posted to the FEMA FOIA website
  • Communicate regularly with requesters to update them on estimated dates of completion, status in the queue, and ask for change in address, if applicable

Please download our report to see all of our observations and recommendations.

Posted in Best practices, Review | Leave a comment

Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals Training Session: October 6, 2015

Join us for a great training session! (NARA identifier 594263)

Join us for a great training session! (NARA identifier 594263)

Do you find yourself locked in disputes with FOIA requesters (or agency colleagues)? Would you like to learn constructive ways to resolve or avoid disputes in the future?

OGIS will present a training session designed to help FOIA professionals develop dispute resolution skills on Tuesday, October 6, 2015 at the Archives building on Constitution Ave between 7th and 9th streets NW in Washington, D.C. This free, all-day session is appropriate for anyone in your agency who works with FOIA, including FOIA Public Liaisons, program managers, FOIA processors, FOIA attorneys and others. Participants will develop a working knowledge of Alternative Dispute Resolution techniques, learn how working with OGIS can help resolve disputes, practice active listening and good communication, and develop strategies for working with difficult people.

If you would like to register for this program, please register using Eventbrite at: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/dispute-resolution-skills-training-session-tickets-17177376997. Space for this training program is extremely limited and the program fills up very quickly, so please do not wait to register.

Eventbrite - Dispute Resolution Skills Training Session - October 6, 2015

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

OGIS is Atwitter—and on Twitter

We hope to see you all in the Twitter-sphere! (NARA Identifier 7717695)

We hope to see you all in the Twitter-sphere! (NARA Identifier 7717695)

We have some exciting news to share: on Monday, September 14 we will officially launch our Twitter feed. If you can’t wait till Monday, please feel free to go ahead and follow @FOIA_Ombuds.

To celebrate, we will host a lunchtime FOIA trivia challenge every day between Monday September 14 and Wednesday September 30. At noon we will tweet a question about FOIA, and we’ll retweet the first correct answer. Join the fun using #FOIATrivia!

What can you expect from @FOIA_Ombuds? Please know that we will not be discussing any individual requests for assistance – confidentiality is a crucial part of our mediation work. If you need our assistance with a FOIA dispute, please email ogis@nara.gov. We will share news about our agency assessments (our report on of the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s FOIA program is coming very soon), upcoming events, blog posts, and more. We look forward to hearing from you!

Posted in About OGIS | 1 Comment

OGIS Case Closure Letters Available on our Website

We hope the case closure letters we post on our website meet with your stamp of approval! (NARA Identifier 6343908)

We hope the case closure letters we post on our website meet with your stamp of approval! (NARA Identifier 6343908)

One of the most common questions that we receive about OGIS’s work is:  “What kinds of FOIA disputes do you see?” If you are interested in learning more about our cases, check out the case closure letters posted on our website. We first announced that we would post our case closure letters during Sunshine Week 2014. Since our announcement, we have posted more than 150 letters.

Why are these letters important? When OGIS completes work on a request for mediation services, we generally summarize the case and its outcome in a letter that is sent to both the requester and the agency. Each letter provides an important snapshot of the facts of the case and our work.

We add new letters to our online repository each week; this index shows the date each letter was uploaded and offers a brief description of the case. We have created separate, sortable databases by fiscal year; you can sort the databases by a variety of characteristics. You can also download our posted letters as a CSV file from FY 2013 and FY 2014.

We hope that you will take a look at our growing collection of letters from FY 2015. If you have any suggestions on ways to make these final letters more accessible, please let us know in the comments!

Posted in About OGIS, Open Government | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Review, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in About OGIS, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in About OGIS, National Archives and Records Administration, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

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.

Posted in Open Government, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in About FOIA, FOIA Advisory Committee, FOIAOnline, innovation | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee, Uncategorized | Leave a comment