FOIAonline Celebrates its Second Birthday

FOIAonline didn't celebrate its birthday with a toga party as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1934, but FOIAonline partners from 11 Federal agencies did enjoy cupcakes. (NARA Identifier 6728531)

FOIAonline didn’t celebrate its birthday with a toga party as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1934, but FOIAonline partners from 11 Federal agencies did enjoy cupcakes. (NARA Identifier 6728531)

The same week we at OGIS celebrated our 5th birthday, we celebrated another important birthday—that of FOIAonline.

An online portal aimed at expanding public access to information requested under FOIA, FOIAonline went live two years ago when five Federal agencies, including the Office of General Counsel at our parent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration, began using the system.

Eleven agencies now use FOIAonline, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Navy. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which receives about 600 requests a day (!), recently began accepting requests that do not contain personally identifiable information.

When FOIAonline launched on October 1, 2012, about 1,600 agency FOIA professionals were registered users. Two years later, more than 4,100 FOIA professionals and 170,000 requesters are registered users. In those two years, FOIA professionals processed more than 200,000 FOIA requests and posted nearly 400,000 records.

For agencies, FOIAonline provides a secure website to receive and process requests, post responses, generate metrics, manage records electronically and create management reports. Requesters can use FOIAonline to submit FOIA requests, track their progress, communicate with the processing agency, search other requests, access previously released responsive documents and file appeals with participating agencies.

OGIS founding Director Miriam Nisbet’s involvement in the project dates to its very early days. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began looking at the feasibility of creating a FOIA portal using the framework of Regulations.gov, the Federal rulemaking portal that allows people to comment on Federal regulations and other agency regulatory actions. By leveraging the infrastructure of Regulations.gov, FOIAonline avoided many start-up costs, resulting in a total of $1.3 million spent to launch the system.

During the observance of OGIS’s first five years, some asked if OGIS’s involvement with FOIAonline was a productive use of OGIS resources. “We heard again and again that members of the FOIA community wanted an inexpensive shared service to make it easier to communicate with requesters and facilitate requests,” Director Nisbet said. “FOIAOnline, which is built on an existing platform and creates a central clearinghouse for released documents, addressed these needs in a number of ways.”

Krista Boyd, minority counsel to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, noted that OGIS’s involvement helped FOIAonline succeed.

“I think having OGIS involved gave it the gravitas it needed to take off,” Ms. Boyd said.

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Celebrating OGIS’s First Five Years

Sunshine in Government Initiative Coordinator Rick Blum presents OGIS founding Director Miriam Nisbet with the Sunshine in Government Award. (Photo by Carrie McGuire)

Sunshine in Government Initiative Coordinator Rick Blum presents OGIS founding Director Miriam Nisbet with the Sunshine in Government Award. (Photo by Carrie McGuire)

As in past years, we at the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) were too busy to celebrate our birthday on September 9. Instead, we marked our 5th year on October 31 with representatives from the requester and agency communities as well as House and Senate staff of the committees that helped create and now oversee OGIS.

Dubbed “OGIS at Five,” the half-day program focused on OGIS’s accomplishments in the last five years—and where the Office is headed in the next five years. And the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI), a coalition of media groups committed to promoting policies that ensure government is accessible, accountable and open, presented OGIS founding Director Miriam Nisbet with the Sunshine in Government Award. (More on that later.)

Discussion ranged from OGIS’s effect on the FOIA process to the balance between OGIS’s two missions of providing mediation services and reviewing agency policies, procedures and compliance to some requesters’ frustrations that OGIS does not have power to order agencies to release records.

One of our biggest challenges in our first five years was balancing our two missions, said Director Nisbet, who walked into an empty office on September 9, 2009, with no staff and requests for assistance already on her desk. “We really had to deal with those requests and deal with them quickly,” she said. Those requests dictated that OGIS focus on providing mediation services to both requesters and agencies. Mediation is “not ever going to take the place of litigation, but mediation is better than battling things out in the courtroom,” she said.

Bill Holzerland, director of the Division of Information Disclosure at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, has worked with OGIS from positions at three different agencies. Through our Dispute Resolution Skills training, OGIS has helped agencies overcome “the fear of engaging in conversation with the requester,” he said. “Engaging in dialogue in good faith with the requester certainly solves problems. At the minimum, it establishes a track record at the agency of working with the requester.”

Hundreds of FOIA professionals from across the government have taken our training since we began offering it in 2010.

The tension between providing mediation services and reviewing agency FOIA policies, procedures and compliance is one that Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont was well aware of when Congress created OGIS in the 2007 amendments to FOIA, said April Carson, majority counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Sen. Leahy leads.

“The work OGIS has done has set a benchmark,” said Ms. Carson.

Krista Boyd, minority counsel to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said “there is such trust in [OGIS’s] ability to carry out FOIA reforms effectively,” in part because of OGIS’s independent voice in advocating for the FOIA process. OGIS, she said, “gives both agencies and requesters a place to go to keep them from jumping into litigation.”

We at OGIS recently addressed the tension between the two missions by creating two teams, one overseeing mediation services and another overseeing review, a move that Ms. Boyd embraces. “I think the shift in staffing is an excellent idea,” she said. (Stay tuned to the FOIA Ombudsman in the coming weeks for more about the expansion of our review program to include assessments of agency FOIA programs.)

Lauren Barlow, counsel to Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who teamed with Sen. Leahy to help create OGIS, said the Office’s success is as a catalyst to “smooth the FOIA process from beginning to end” for both requesters and agencies.

Brad Heath, a reporter with USAToday, said that he had “tremendously high expectations” for OGIS, but said in his experience “the actual mediation process hasn’t led to the one thing I want, which is records.” As an ombudsman, OGIS cannot compel agencies to release documents, enforce FOIA or make determinations or dictate resolutions to disputes.

“It is good that when you deal with OGIS, you do get a more fulsome explanation of the process,” Mr. Heath said.

Nate Jones, FOIA coordinator for the National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute, said he expected more review of agency FOIA compliance in OGIS’s first five years. At the same time, he said, one cannot ignore how “tremendously useful OGIS has been.”

Where will OGIS be in five years?

“I hope in five years OGIS is out of business or severely bored,” Mr. Holzerland said. (We’ve often said that we’d love for FOIA to be working so well for both FOIA professionals and requesters that there’s no need for OGIS.)

Absent from the “OGIS at Five” program was the surprise presentation of SGI’s Sunshine in Government Award, which SGI usually presents during Sunshine Week. The coalition decided to fast-track the award for Director Nisbet upon hearing of her retirement at the end of November.

“Miriam has accomplished so much. She took a 104-word mandate that Congress wrote into the federal FOIA and brought it to life. She conducted the office in a non-lawyerly, public-facing manner. She helped hundreds of requesters understand the responses they were getting from agencies, or pushed agencies to respond when they couldn’t or simply refused,” said Mr. Blum. (Read his full comments here.)

OpenTheGovernment.org and the Newseum Institute sponsored the event at the Newseum.

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10/21 FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting Wrap-Up

Image - WPA Library bookmobile, NARA Identifier: 195912

Rethinking FOIA takes careful study. (NARA identifier 195912)

On October 21, 2014, the FOIA Advisory Committee met to continue its efforts to examine and address FOIA oversight and accountability, proactive disclosure, and FOIA fees.

Archivist of the U.S. David S. Ferriero opened the meeting by noting that the momentum behind government openness and transparency is growing around the globe. In September, President Obama spoke at the Open Government Partnership meeting at the United Nations about the importance of Open Government and U.S efforts. President Obama referenced the work of the FOIA Advisory Committee, citing efforts to modernize FOIA so that it’s easier to administer and use.

Mr. Ferriero also acknowledged Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) Director Miriam Nisbet who will retire from Federal Service at the end of the year.

To ensure that the Committee’s Oversight and Accountability, Proactive Disclosures, and FOIA Fees subcommittees have a clear path in the coming months to recommend improvement to FOIA, the Committee dedicated the majority of the meeting to status reports from the subcommittees’ Co-Chairs.

Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee Co-Chairs Martin Michalosky and Mark S. Zaid reported that the subcommittee agreed to focus its efforts on

  • identifying current authorities for oversight and past actions (program reviews, audits, reports, inspections, etc.) that have been completed by open government groups and others over the past 10 years;
  • determining opportunities for additional oversight;
  • assessing the implementation of the FOIA Public Liaison role and determining opportunities for improvement;
  • evaluating past litigation review efforts; and
  • determining opportunities for further oversight.

Mr. Michalosky noted that the subcommittee discussed oversight practices that work well within agencies, including self-policing, internal audits, as well as what agencies do across the board. Mr. Zaid observed that reports, studies, hearings, and investigations regarding FOIA oversight are not available in one central place and suggested creating such a collection online.

Proactive Disclosures Subcommittee Co-Chair David S. Reed presented an overview of the FOIA’s proactive disclosure requirements and the Department of Justice’s guidance encouraging agencies to proactively make information available to the public. Mr. Reed touched on the DATA Act and the benefits of standardizing proactive disclosures. Mr. Reed and Co-Chair Eric Gillespie explained the challenge the subcommittee faces in breaking down Federal agencies’ FOIA request by record type, request type, or requester type and in obtaining FOIA logs with sufficient descriptions to get the data needed for analysis. Mr. Reed and Mr. Gillespie asked whether there are agencies represented on the Committee that would be willing to pilot a project with the subcommittee on this issue.

FOIA Fees Subcommittee Co-Chairs James Hogan and Ginger McCall noted that the subcommittee had explored how Federal agencies and FOIA requesters perceive FOIA fees, how data could help define and analyze the issues, and how other countries handle open access law fees. Issues identified by the subcommittee include

  • lack of understanding among FOIA requesters and Federal agencies regarding fee-related FOIA definitions and requirements;
  • the lack of consistency in fee-related decisions; and
  • how fees are used in voluminous and vague requests.

The Committee has set an ambitious agenda. We look forward to updating you on the Committee’s work. Please visit the FOIA Advisory Committee’s webpage and subpages at https://ogis.archives.gov/foia-advisory-committee.htm for information about the Committee and how you can get involved. Do you have ideas or opinions you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

Posted in About FOIA, Fees, FOIA Advisory Committee, FOIA Public Liaisons, Government information, Open Government | Leave a comment

October 21 FOIA Advisory Committee to be live streamed!

Grab some popcorn and join us for the livestream! (National Archives Identifier 195750)

Grab some popcorn and join us for the livestream! (National Archives Identifier
195750)

The National Archives will host—and live stream—its second Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee meeting on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. The Committee will discuss the FOIA issues on which it has agreed to focus: FOIA oversight and accountability, proactive disclosures, and FOIA fees.

Due to space limitations and access procedures, advance registration is required. Spaces to attend the meeting are still available. Learn more here on the OGIS blog.

Can’t make it in person? We’ll live stream the meeting on the National Archives’ YouTube channel. Launched in June 2009, the YouTube channel highlights popular archived films from the National Archives holdings, informs the public about NARA events, and brings NARA exhibits to the people. The URL for the FOIA Advisory Committee meeting is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xL_X4-VHr9A.

To learn more about the FOIA Advisory Committee, visit the Committee’s webpage at https://ogis.archives.gov/foia-advisory-committee.htm.

 

 

Posted in About FOIA, Fees, FOIA Advisory Committee, National Archives and Records Administration, Open Government | 4 Comments

FOIA Advisory Committee to meet October 21

National Archives Identifier: 6606170

Attention all readers! The FOIA Advisory Committee is gearing up for its second meeting later this month. (NARA Identifier 6606170)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee will meet on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. The meeting, which is open to the public, will discuss the FOIA issues on which the Committee has agreed to focus:  FOIA oversight and accountability, proactive disclosures, and FOIA fees. Speakers will include David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States; Miriam Nisbet, FOIA Advisory Committee Chair and Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) Director; and FOIA Advisory Committee Members.

Doors open at 9:30 a.m. for the meeting, which runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Room 105 (the Archivist’s Reception Room) of the National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in Washington, D.C.

Although this meeting is open to the public, space limitations and access procedures require that individuals planning to attend register for the event via Eventbrite. Eventbrite registration for this event will go live on Tuesday, October 7, 2014 at 10 a.m.

Eventbrite - Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee Meeting

The committee—comprised of 10 government members and 10 non-governmental members with considerable FOIA expertise—is mandated in the second Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) with studying FOIA across the government and advising on ways to improve it.

For questions about accessibility or to request accommodations, please contact Christa Lemelin at 202-741-5773 or foia-advisory-committee@nara.gov.

Learn more about the Committee at https://ogis.archives.gov/foia-advisory-committee.htm. Learn more about submitting questions and comments to the Committee at: https://ogis.archives.gov/foia-advisory-committee/contact-us-submit-comments.htm

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, FOIA Advisory Committee, OGIS events, Open Government | 2 Comments

OGIS’s Website – And We’re Back!

We resolved our issues with the OGIS website. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you and we appreciate your understanding. If you’re still experiencing issues with our website, please let us know.

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OGIS’s Website – We’re Working On It

Under construction: We are working hard to get back online (NARA identifier 5585740)

Under construction: We are working hard to get back online (NARA identifier 5585740)

Those of you who frequent ogis.archives.gov in the last day may have noticed that the website is not working properly in some browsers. We are aware of the issue, and we are working with our IT staff to fix the problem.

We apologize for any inconvenience this situation has caused you. Please bear with us — we will let you know when things are back to normal.

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Happy Fifth Anniversary OGIS!

Tradition holds that fifth anniversary gifts are made of wood. Something like this traditional wooden ceremonial headdress, located at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, should do nicely. (National Archives Identifier: 192415)

Tradition holds that fifth anniversary gifts are made of wood. Something like this traditional wooden ceremonial headdress, located at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, should do nicely. (National Archives Identifier: 192415)

OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet opened our doors for the first time on September 9, 2009. Though it feels like those five years flashed by, we’ve accomplished quite a bit as one of the newest offices at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Here are just a few of the achievements we’re celebrating this month:

  • We’ve helped resolve—and prevent—Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disputes: Congress established OGIS to provide mediation services to resolve FOIA disputes between requesters and agencies. Director Nisbet found requests for mediation services waiting for her on the day she opened the office, and the demand for this service has remained extremely strong—around 4,000 requests for assistance, ranging from simple telephone and email inquiries to disputes requiring more structured facilitations. In providing mediation services, we advocate not for the requester or the agency but for the FOIA process.
  • We’ve reviewed FOIA practices: OGIS also is directed to review agencies’ FOIA policies, procedures and compliance. In our first five years, we’ve done this in a number of ways, including reviewing agency FOIA regulations (so far, we have reviewed about a quarter of all departments and agencies);  highlighting the agency best practices we see in our work; reviewing  and suggesting improvements to FOIA web sites and template letters; and working with agencies when we observe, through our mediation work, policies or procedures that are not consistent with FOIA law or policy, or that may be different from the practices occurring at other agencies.
  • We’ve trained others: OGIS staffers have made dozens of presentations about the importance of communicating with requesters and agency colleagues to resolve and prevent FOIA disputes. We also developed a day-long Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training program, through which hundreds of FOIA professionals have learned ways to resolve and avoid FOIA disputes.
  • We’ve made recommendations  for improving FOIA to Congress and the President: OGIS has issued 11 recommendations, five in April 2012 that we put together in our first years, four additional recommendations in 2013 and two in 2014. Seven of these recommendations require ongoing work by OGIS, including some in conjunction with agency partners and other stakeholders. Two recommendations focus on actions to be taken by other federal agencies. The remaining two recommend White House action.
  • We’ve reported on our work: OGIS has published an annual report each year that includes a detailed look at our accomplishments. Director Nisbet also testified before Congress every year on our observations, as well as our recommendations for improving FOIA.  We’ve recently begun posting the letters we send upon closing individual OGIS mediation services cases. The letters provide valuable insight into the kinds of cases we handle and how we resolve them.

So what do the next five years have in store for OGIS?  While we’ve learned to stay nimble and expect the unexpected, there are two efforts that we’re most excited about. First, we’re launching our expanded review program. Look for updates on our first reviews of agency FOIA programs in the coming weeks, with more to follow in FY 2015. Second, we’re focused on our role in the National Action Plan, particularly our support of the FOIA Advisory Committee. We can’t wait to see what this group of experts comes up with.

Finally, keep an eye out for an announcement of a special event celebrating OGIS’s first five years and the impact our office has had on the Federal FOIA landscape.

Thank you for your interest and support over the last five years. We look forward to continuing to serve as the Federal FOIA ombudsman.

 

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Dancing Your Way Through Immigration Records

The Alien File, or A-File, of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor, shown here in 1986 with Bob Hope, is among the records available in the online reading room of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (NARA Identifier 6416844)

The Alien File, or A-File, of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor, shown here in 1986 with Bob Hope, is among the records available in the online reading room of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (NARA Identifier 6416844)

Interested in immigration records? You’re not alone. U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) is on track to receive about 140,000 FOIA requests in the year ending September 20, 2014.

Top USCIS FOIA officials recently took time from overseeing records request processing to meet with requesters and FOIA professionals from other agencies, offering tips to requesters for obtaining access to records and to agencies for handling 600 (!) requests a day. USCIS officials also heard suggestions for improving the process.

OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet, who moderated the August 20, 2014 stakeholder meeting, noted that bringing requesters and agencies together betters the FOIA process for all. “We have an opportunity here to resolve disputes and indeed prevent disputes, which is what this meeting is all about,” she said.

Jill Eggleston, acting chief of staff for the USCIS National Records Center, informed requesters that USCIS maintains three tracks for processing FOIA requests:

  • Track 1 consists of requests for a specific document from an Alien file, or A-File, which documents a person’s contacts with the Federal government as she or he lives as an immigrant and/or strives to become a naturalized citizen. A request for a Certificate of Naturalization would fall into Track 1.
  • Track 2 consists of requests for an entire A-File, the average size of which is 218 pages.
  • Track 3 is an accelerated track and consists of requests from individuals who have a hearing pending before an immigration judge or their attorneys.

The majority of requests USCIS receives seek entire A-Files or a particular A-File document, which can include forms, correspondence, photos, news articles and information from other federal agencies, such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of State.

When an A-File contains records that originated at ICE or another agency, USCIS refers those documents to the originating agency for direct response to the requester by the originating agency. (USCIS has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with CBP allowing USCIS to process CBP documents without referrals.) One participant suggested that USCIS allow FOIA professionals from other agencies to review referrals at USCIS to streamline the process that now involves sending records between agencies.

Form G-639 is not required to make a request to USCIS, but it is recommended.

If you’re interested in checking the status of your request or wish to know the average processing time for each track, USCIS’s FOIA web site provides such information and is updated daily.

Before you make a request, you may wish to check out the USCIS Electronic Reading Room. If a document has been requested two or more times or there’s a strong likelihood that it will be requested again, it’s a candidate for the reading room. Got suggestions for additions to the collection? Email your ideas to uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov.  

Other FOIA offices might be interested in USCIS’s Significant Interest Group (SIG), a team that handles non-A-File requests, which account for about 1,500 requests a year. Program managers who are tasked with searching for responsive documents are required to fill out a form documenting the search. The SIG teams issues monthly report cards to program offices based on the quality and timeliness of their responses. “It’s created a healthy competition among the program offices,” said Acting Deputy Chief of FOIA Roger Andoh.

Several suggestions for improving the USCIS FOIA process came up during the meeting, including making it easier for requesters to communicate with FOIA professionals and creating a fourth track to deal with data requests.

Mr. Andoh noted that his team provides requesters with the names, phone numbers and email addresses of the FOIA professionals processing the requests, and has facilitated calls between requesters and program managers to help the FOIA process.

Several requesters noted that it’s difficult to figure out which agencies have which records, especially since USCIS isn’t alone in the immigration landscape. Long-time readers of this blog may remember a five-part series of posts on immigration records:

Demystifying Immigration Records, Part 1
Ensuring Requests for A-Files are A-OK
ICE: A Source for Investigative Immigration Records
Immigration Records, Part 4: Customs & Border Protection Records
More on Immigration Records

USCIS plans to hold similar meetings and is aware that some folks were unable to connect with the number provided for the August 20, 2014 meeting. “We apologize for the inconvenience and we hope they will not be discouraged from participating in more engagements in the future,” Mr. Andoh said.

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USCIS Invites Requesters to Stakeholder Meeting

Ear NARA Identifier 6457570

USCIS will have the ear of requesters on August 20 when its FOIA professionals share information about the agency’s FOIA program. USCIS also will be all ears for requesters who have questions or ideas about its FOIA program. (NARA identifier 647570)

U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) processed a mind-numbing 138,523 FOIA requests in the year ending September 30, 2013. (That’s more than 11,000 requests a month and nearly 600 a day!)

Wonder how the agency does it? Searching for best practices on submitting FOIA requests to USCIS for immigration records? Have feedback on how the FOIA process works at USCIS?

Mark your calendars for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday August 20 for a FOIA requester stakeholder meeting in Washington, D.C. USCIS officials, including Acting Deputy Chief of FOIA Roger Andoh, will share information about USCIS’s FOIA program and address topics of interest to USCIS requesters. OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet also will speak.

If you’d like to submit agenda items and/or questions, email FOIASIG.NRC@uscis.dhs.gov with “FOIA Stakeholder Meeting Agenda” in the subject line and attach a Word document or PDF with suggestions and questions. Submissions must be received by Wednesday August 13.

That’s also the deadline for registering to participate in person or by phone. Email your full name and the organization you represent, if any, to FOIASIG.NRC@uscis.dhs.gov with “FOIA Meeting” in the subject line. You must bring government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license. Plan to arrive by 1:15 a.m. to complete the security process.

The meeting, which will include an open forum question-and-answer session, begins at 1:30 in the Discovery Conference Room at 20 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., near Union Station on Metro’s Red Line.

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Best practices, Customer service, Immigration records, OGIS events, Ombudsman | Leave a comment