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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
We welcome guest bloggers! The following post is from Government Information Specialist Mark H. Graff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
At the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s FOIA, Privacy, and Information Collections branch, we’ve been looking for ways to streamline our internal processes and increase the use of technology to better respond to FOIA requests. We purchased several processing tools to help process records faster, and to track the work that comes through the branch. We recently started weekly team meetings at which we go over significant developments or problems arising in our cases and review agency FOIA procedures. We’ve already found a few ways to speed case processing and provide better customer service to our stakeholders and requesters.
One low-cost improvement we’ve made is a “FOIA Quick and Easy Guide for Record Holders” to help our NRC staff when they’re called on to search for records responsive to FOIA requests. Because NRC has offices across the country and many employees aren’t involved regularly in estimating fees or searching for records, we learned that employees weren’t sure where to start when they’re assigned a request. In response, our small postcard-sized reference guide offers step-by-step instructions for conducting searches and getting the records back to the FOIA shop for processing. We handed out this guide at recent agency-wide FOIA training and are making it available to individual program offices.
Another improvement the NRC has made is buying several licenses to allow Program and Regional Offices to use electronic redaction applications for viewing and suggesting records redactions. We no longer have to mail the records, have records holders mark suggested redactions by hand, and then mail the records back to us for processing. This saves both time and resources. We’ve also started a project to digitize our archived FOIA request files to more efficiently keep up with our Records Management duties and to make the task of finding some of these old requests easier.
We’re proud of the improvements we’ve made, and we believe they will further enhance the agency’s transparency and help us to respond to our requesters more quickly.
OGIS recently set up a pop-up shop, of sorts, on the West Coast offering one-on-one mini ombuds sessions with journalists and gathering ideas for improving the FOIA process.
I’m pleased to have represented OGIS at the annual conference of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving investigative reporting.
The conference, June 26-29 in San Francisco, came on the heels of the inaugural meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee, which is mandated with studying FOIA across the government and advising on ways to improve FOIA. The committee’s first meeting included brainstorming on legislative, policy and process changes to improve the FOIA process.
Journalists attending the IRE conference had some ideas for improving the process, which they shared with me and others at a session titled “Help Shape FOIA Reform & Join the #FOIAFriday Community.”
Several of the ideas include, in no particular order:
- Increasing online posting of government records. The FOIA Advisory Committee thought increased proactive disclosure should be a priority—and several journalists and a media lawyer attending the IRE session agreed. “I think we should be moving to putting everything out there,” said Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter with ProPublica, who noted that the city of Oakland, CA, proactively posts its records online.
- Completely exempting journalists from FOIA fees. Journalists are generally afforded media status for FOIA fee category purposes, meaning they pay no search or review fees, and pay duplication costs after the first 100 pages. Journalists are not granted fee waivers by virtue of holding press credentials—like any other requesters, journalists must meet analytical factors, including that the public interest is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government. That should change, said Djordje Padejski, innovation projects director at the JSK Journalism Fellowships program at Stanford University. “In many European countries, journalists are exempt from fees by default,” he said “The U.S. is seen as a leader on freedom of information issues and the fees should reflect that. I believe journalists should be exempt by default from paying fees.”
- Putting sanctions in the FOIA statute for violating the law. “How many FOIA officers have you seen demoted for violating the FOIA” asked Mr. Padejski. “Put teeth in the law; it’s their work to know the law.”
In addition to presenting on another panel titled “Free the Data,” during which I discussed best practices for database requests and the importance of FOIA Public Liaisons in the FOIA process, I also held 20-minute sessions in which journalists could ask for help with the FOIA process. I met with about a dozen journalists who asked for help on everything from filing a FOIA request to how to deal with a request that an agency had closed in error. A big thanks to IRE for asking me to be part of its conference. As I told many of the journalists I met with, Happy FOIAing!
Expanded oversight of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process, increased proactive disclosure, and reforming—or perhaps eliminating—fees emerged as top priorities of the FOIA Advisory Committee during its inaugural meeting June 24.
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 FOIA.
“FOIA administration and its process is not something that is or should be entirely government run; it is a partnership between the government and requesters,” Jay Bosanko, Chief Operating Officer of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), told the committee.
The NARA-run committee spent part of its first meeting brainstorming and informally voting on ideas for legislative, policy or process changes that could improve FOIA, a process facilitated by Lynn Overmann, senior adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Committee Chair and Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) Director Miriam Nisbet noted that the brainstorming is not intended to set the committee’s agenda in stone. “This is a two-year effort,” she said. “We are not going to be able to solve everything today or come up with everything we want to discuss.”
A majority of the committee members think that FOIA would benefit from more oversight and accountability, whether through existing entities such as the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy or the Office of Government Information Services, the FOIA Ombudsman, or through an entity outside the executive branch.
Committee member Nate Jones, FOIA Coordinator at the non-governmental National Security Archive, suggested reviewing FOIA lawsuits to determine whether there are cases that need not be litigated. He also suggested a pre-litigation program within agencies to have closer scrutiny of whether the Government will defend an agency in litigation.
The committee agreed to look at what oversight now exists; identify gaps in oversight as well as best practices in state, Federal and international oversight of freedom of information programs; and how compliance audits might contribute to robust oversight.
The committee also set proactive disclosure as a priority and agreed to look at existing requirements regarding proactive disclosure, what the barriers are to proactive disclosure and what agencies have excellent proactive disclosure. The committee also discussed having requesters help set priorities for proactive disclosures.
“To make proactive disclosure part of the culture, you need more than the FOIA people at the table,” said Karen Finnegan, Chief of the Programs and Policies Division at the Department of State, which develops FOIA policies and procedures, handles FOIA litigation and manages the Department’s special document productions. Information technology experts, open government managers and others should also be involved.
Several committee members noted that Section 508 compliance, which makes government records posted online accessible to individuals with disabilities, is an unintended obstacle for agencies striving to make proactive disclosures. Another idea: identifying common sets of records that all agencies can post.
The committee also set fees and fee waivers as a priority. The committee discussed how and whether to reform FOIA fees; whether to revise or eliminate fees for non-commercial or all requesters; and how to reduce “fee animosity” between requesters and agencies. Ginger McCall, Director of the Open Government Program at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and others suggested having bright lines with regard to fees and certain categories of requesters.
Committee members paired up (one government member and one non-government member) to lead each of the three projects.
Three other ideas that came up during brainstorming are already being addressed as part of the NAP, including a common core FOIA regulation, a consolidated government-wide FOIA portal, and training.
Other ideas the committee considered include (in no particular order):
- Changing the 20-working-day response time to 20-working days for simple requests and 60-working days for complex requests
- Aiming to fulfill every request within one year
- Adding a role for FOIA requesters in legislation
- Studying FOIA backlogs and coming up with a way to reduce them
- Cross-training between Federal FOIA professionals and requesters
- Training all agency employees that FOIA is everyone’s responsibility
- Harnessing technology to improve the FOIA process
- Fostering communications between agencies and requesters
- Developing a way to access immigration records outside of the FOIA process
- Building a bridge between FOIA and records management
- Requiring standard performance criteria for all Federal FOIA professionals
- Increasing discretionary release
- Improving the FOIA referral process
- Revising the statute so it is written in plain writing that everyone can understand
- Reducing and clarifying Exemption 3 statutes, non-FOIA statutes that exempt certain categories of information
- Establishing a triage system so records are not destroyed while agencies are processing FOIA requests
- Standardizing FOIA websites
- Improving the ability of public to access documents by metadata tagging
- Establishing an Exemption 5 balancing test
Have ideas? We’d love to hear from you!
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 Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at the Archives building on Constitution Avenue 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 have any questions or if you would like to register for this training program, please drop us a line at email@example.com. Space for this training program is extremely limited and the program fills up quickly, so please don’t wait to register.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT (FOIA) ADVISORY COMMITTEE TO HOST
AN OPEN MEETING ON JUNE 24, 2014
DATE: Tuesday, June 24, 2014
TIME OF MEETING: 10:00 am – 1:00 pm
WHERE: The Archivist’s Reception Room, Room 105 in the National Archives Building
ADDRESS: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Washington, DC 20408-0001
WHAT: The newly established Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee will host an open meeting to discuss improvements to FOIA administration, develop consensus and recommendations for improving FOIA administration and proactive disclosures, and solicit public comments. The meeting will focus on prioritizing the FOIA issues on which the Committee will focus. The media is welcome to attend.
WHO: Speakers will include David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, Miriam Nisbet, FOIA Advisory Committee Chair, and FOIA Advisory Committee Members.
NOTES: This meeting is open to the public. Due to space limitations and access procedures, individuals planning to attend the meeting are required to register through Eventbrite. Attendees are required to show one form of Government-issued photo identification (e.g. driver’s license) to gain admittance. For questions about accessibility or to request accommodations, please contact the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) staff at 202-741-5770 or firstname.lastname@example.org.