Let’s Make It Easier for Requesters to Use the FOIA Process

It should be easy to find an agency's FOIA regulations online. (NARA Identifier 6482991

It should be easy to find an agency’s FOIA regulations online. (NARA Identifier 6482991

Agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations are one of the most important resources available to those requesting information from the federal government. As we’ve mentioned in the past, agency FOIA regulations are essentially the rule book the agency uses to process a request.  And, as anyone who has ever played a new board or card game knows, it is much easier to win when you know the rules of the game.

FOIA regulations touch on a wide variety of topics, some of which the agency must address in the regulation and some of which they may address (see our blog post on the importance of agency FOIA regulations for a full explanation of what is in an agency’s FOIA regulation, and why it matters). All regulations include information essential to a successful FOIA request, including where to send an initial request and the time limit for appealing an adverse determination.

Important though they may be, FOIA regulations are frequently very difficult for requesters to find. Some requesters search for agency FOIA regulations in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, or eCFR. One way to search the eCFR for the applicable regulations is do a simple search for the agency’s name and then click the link to “Refine this search” and narrow the results by adding  “Freedom of Information Act” or “5 USC 552” into the query (5 USC 552 refers to FOIA’s location in the US Code). Requesters can also find links to agency regulations in the eCFR by visiting the results of National Security Archive’s 2013 audit of agency FOIA regulations; please note, however, that the National Security Archive’s table showing when the regulation was last updated might be out of date.

There is a very easy step agencies can take to help requesters better understand the process the agency uses, help make sure requests are routed to the correct office, and make sure requesters are aware of any other requirements under the law: post a link to the agency’s regulation on the agency’s FOIA website. Posting a link to the regulation in the eCFR is a good first step. However, as we noted in our most recent agency assessment report, posting the agency’s regulation as a searchable PDF or in HTML is even more user-friendly.

Do you have any other ideas for simple steps agencies can take to help the public use the FOIA process? Let us know in the comments!

Posted in Best practices, Customer service, Government information, Regulations | Leave a comment

Advisory Committee Meeting Set for April 21: Reserve Your Seat Now!

Unfortunately, there is no popcorn allowed in the Archivist's Reception Room, but we still hope you will join us for the April 21 FOIA Advisory Committee meeting! (NARA Identifier 6801620

Unfortunately, there is no popcorn allowed in the Archivist’s Reception Room, but we still hope you will join us for the April 21 FOIA Advisory Committee meeting! (NARA Identifier 6801620

It’s time for another meeting of the federal FOIA Advisory Committee! Be sure to reserve your seat now for our Tuesday April 21 meeting from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Archivist’s Reception Room at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC.

Similar to our last few meetings, the Committee’s subcommittees will present updates on their progress over the last few months. These subcommittees are exploring issues related to FOIA fees, oversight and accountability, and making information available to the public. Archivist of the United States David Ferriero will open the meeting.

The meeting will not be streamed live online for those who can’t attend in person (though we will post notes and video of the meeting as soon as possible). However, attending the meeting is NOT the only way to keep up with the Committee’s work or to share your views and insights with the members. You can visit the Committee’s webpage to provide feedback, and to read Committee documents, including notes from subcommittee meetings.

Posted in Fees, FOIA Advisory Committee, National Archives and Records Administration | Leave a comment

OGIS Releases Second Agency Assessment


To create an agency assessment report, OGIS takes a close look at every facet of the agency’s FOIA program. (NARA identifier 6399089)

We’re pleased to release our second assessment of an agency FOIA program:  the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Special Access and FOIA unit. Regular readers will recall that we launched our agency assessment program last year to help us better fulfill our statutory mandate to review agency FOIA policies, procedures and compliance. (5 U.S.C. §§ 552 (h)(2)(A) and (B).)

As the name of the office implies, Special Access and FOIA operates slightly differently than other FOIA offices. One of the biggest differences between Special Access and FOIA and other FOIA shops is that Special Access and FOIA primarily processes records that were created by another agency. Once an agency no longer has a business need for permanently historically valuable records, it transfers legal custody of the records to NARA. (The term of art for this change in custody is accessioned.) More than 90 percent of archival records are available without a FOIA request. The office processes requests for accessioned records located at NARA’s College Park, MD, and Washington, DC, facilities. Because the records are archival, Special Access and FOIA uses a different fee system (which is set by law). The office also does not use Exemption 5, which covers several well-known legal privileges, including the deliberative process, attorney-work product, and attorney-client privileges, to withhold information.

Like our first assessment, this 12-page report includes our observations, including best practices, and our recommendations. At the end is an at-a-glance summary of our recommendations, which are intended to help improve the FOIA process for the agency and for requesters.

To prepare this report, our review team evaluated NARA’s regulations and website against the requirements of the statute, and our best practices. We also reviewed the agency’s Annual FOIA and Chief FOIA Officer reports and evaluations by other groups (from both in and outside of the government), and looked at litigation against the agency to identify any trends. (We found none.) This research was supplemented by a survey of agency FOIA professionals and in-depth interview with the office’s head, Martha Murphy. We also reviewed a sample of case files to see how the office is carrying out the law in practice.

It’s important to note that the report doesn’t touch on every facet of FOIA. That doesn’t mean we didn’t look at how the agency measures up to every statutory requirement. We did, and in an effort to create a readable report that the agency will use, we wrote only about the best practices we observed and about our recommendations for improvements. We hope that the at-a-glance summary of our recommendations will help agency FOIA managers as they plan for future improvements.

The OGIS Review Team has scheduled six other agency reviews for this fiscal year. Next up, we will focus on components of the Department of Homeland Security, starting with  the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The other components we’ll assess  are Coast Guard , Transportation Security Administration , Secret Service , US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection.

Posted in About OGIS, OGIS's Reports, Review | Leave a comment

Announcing OGIS’s FY 2014 Report!

OGIS 2014 Report Cover

Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 is shaping up to be a busy one for OGIS, just as FY 2014 was. Want to learn more about OGIS’s FY 2014? Check out our annual report: Building a Bridge Between FOIA Requesters & Federal Agencies 2015 Report for FY 2014. We’ve got a nifty page-turn version on our website, along with a less-fancy PDF version.

Our two key accomplishments in FY 2014: establishing a new team to review agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies, procedures, and compliance, and establishing a new FOIA Advisory Committee.

Regular readers of this blog know we’ve posted a lot about the FOIA Advisory Committee, established under the direction of our parent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as part of the Second U.S. Open Government National Action Plan. (Mark your calendars–the Committee next meets on Tuesday April 21.)

Stay tuned for more information about our FOIA agency assessment program—including our report on NARA’s Special Access and FOIA program. In case you missed it, we released our first agency assessment of NARA’s Office of General Counsel in November.

Happy reading! And let us know what you think in the comments section.

Posted in About OGIS, FOIA Advisory Committee, OGIS's Reports, Review | Leave a comment

FOIA Advisory Committee Seeks Passionate Government Employee for Long-Term Relationship

We are looking for a government volunteer to help us modernize FOIA. (NARA Identifier 516016)

We are looking for a government volunteer to help us modernize FOIA. (NARA Identifier 516016)

A position for a government representative recently opened on the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee! The Committee  is a diverse group of FOIA experts from inside and outside the government with the shared goal of tackling some of FOIA’s trickiest issues.

In keeping with the terms of the Committee’s charter, we are currently accepting applications for a FOIA professional from a non-cabinet level agency. Individuals interested in serving on the Committee must comply with the Committee’s bylaws.

If you are interested in serving on the committee or nominating someone to serve on the committee, please send an email to ogis@nara.gov by Tuesday, April 14, 2015.

Please include the following information:

1. A short paragraph or “bio” (no more than 250 words, please) summarizing your resume  or otherwise highlighting the contributions you (or your nominee) would bring to this committee;
2. A resume or curriculum vitae; and
3. Your full contact information (or that of the nominee).

We also ask that you use your full name (last name, first name) as the subject line of your email. We look forward to hearing from you!

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee | Leave a comment

Let’s Keep the Sun Shining All Year Long

OGIS thanks everyone for a great Sunshine Week and applauds all efforts to keep the focus on openness all year long. (NARA Identifier 194183

OGIS thanks everyone for a great Sunshine Week and applauds all efforts to keep the focus on openness all year long. (NARA Identifier 194183

Another Sunshine Week is in the history books. As always, the celebrations served as a powerful reminder about the importance of open government laws like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and what we can all do to open the government more to the public. Just because Sunshine Week is over, though, doesn’t mean that it’s too late for an agency to join in the celebration.

As we mentioned in our pre-Sunshine Week blog, a number of federal agencies joined the celebration by hosting trainings, events, and conducting other awareness-raising activities. Here are a couple of examples of great steps agencies can take to spotlight government transparency.

Recognizing FOIA Professionals

Here at OGIS, we love the idea of recognizing FOIA professionals. Saying thank you is a great way to keep your staff motivated, and remind them of the importance of their work to the operations of the agency and the government as a whole.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) kicked off Sunshine Week with an event recognizing FOIA professionals across the government. OIP handed out awards for Exceptional Service by a FOIA Professional, Exceptional FOIA Service by a Team of Agency Professionals, Lifetime Service Award, Excellence in Management, Outstanding Contributions by a New Employee, and Outstanding Customer Service. Read more about the event, and see a full list of winners on OIP’s blog.

The Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Treasury also hosted celebrations for FOIA personnel. During DHS’ event, referred to as the “Oscars of the FOIA,” Delores  Barber, Deputy Chief FOIA Officer,  treated FOIA professionals to a buffet lunch, recognized a number of staff from DHS components for their hard work and contributions, and awarded a  “FOIA Processor of the Year.” Saying “thank you” to your staff does not have to be complicated affair; DHS’ event began as a small pizza party a few years back.

Leading by Example

Several times  over the past few years, we’ve discussed the importance of executive support for FOIA offices. Archivist of the United States of America David Ferriero once again showed great leadership by issuing a message to all employees reminding them that FOIA is everyone’s responsibility. Treasury’s Chief FOIA Officer also sent a similar message to all of the agency’s employees and contractors.

We hope you all enjoyed the Sunshine Week celebration, and are ready to work with us to keep the focus on the importance of open government all year long! Does your agency do anything special to recognize its FOIA staff or remind all employees that FOIA is their responsibility? Let us know about it in the comments!

Posted in Best practices, Open Government, Sunshine Week 2015 | Leave a comment

You Can Help Keep a FOIA Request Out of Court

Judges have a critical role to play in FOIA, but we should avoid clogging up the courts with FOIA cases where we can. (NARA Identifier 6010581)

Judges have a critical role to play in FOIA, but we should avoid clogging up the courts with FOIA cases where we can. (NARA Identifier 6010581)

Since OGIS opened in 2009, we’ve worked to improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process by providing mediation services and training to help agency FOIA professionals develop skills to communicate productively with requesters. We frequently see our efforts paying off as the FOIA culture shifts from being contentious and litigious to communicative and collaborative; but, we also know we have more work to do.

In December the FOIA Project, based at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, issued a report showing that the number of FOIA lawsuits filed in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 rose to 422, a 13-percent increase from FY 2013 when 372 FOIA lawsuits were filed and the highest number since 2001.

When talking about the number of FOIA lawsuits filed in a year, it‘s useful to put it into context of the number of FOIA requests filed each year. For each year between 2010 and 2014, the percentage of FOIA lawsuits filed compared to the number of requests overall held steady: about one half of one percent of FOIA requests ended in court. (Of course, not all lawsuits filed in a particular year are the result of requests filed that same year.)


Historical data are also important for context. The number of FOIA lawsuits filed each year has actually dropped fairly significantly over the last few decades. A 1987 Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) Statement on Resolution of Freedom of Information Act Disputes noted that requesters filed about 500 new FOIA cases per year.

The flip side of the statistic regarding the number of lawsuits filed is the number of requests that are processed without a lawsuit. Often the process works—though the lack of a lawsuit does not mean that the process worked perfectly, or even worked at all. The reasons that FOIA requesters do not file lawsuits are as varied as the reasons that requesters do file FOIA lawsuits.

Why are FOIA Suits Filed?

Under FOIA, requesters can file a suit and ask for a judge to rule on whether a federal agency can withhold material under the law. This arrangement gives the judicial branch a critical role in the process: Courts interpret the statute and provide some oversight to the process.

A 2014 ACUS report, Resolving FOIA Disputes Through Targeted  ADR Strategies,  found “wide variation in the form and substance of FOIA disputes between requesters and agencies, in the motivation, resources, and sophistication of  requesters, and in the missions and the level of interest in agency records.” There is no one path that leads to a FOIA suit: some requesters work with agencies for years before they decide to file a lawsuit; others routinely file on the 21st day; still others file lawsuits because they believe – fairly or unfairly – that it is the only way to get an agency to pay attention to a request.

What Can I Do to Avoid Becoming Another Statistic (aka, a lawsuit)?

The number of FOIA lawsuits filed is unlikely to ever fall to zero, but there are common-sense steps that agencies can take that will help make sure lawsuits are more rare.

In 2012, we posted a list of tips for “How to Invite a Lawsuit.” Avoiding these “tips” by clearly explaining exemptions and decisions to withhold material to a requester, providing an estimated date of completion, and communicating with requesters can help avoid lawsuits. We at OGIS also can help resolve disputes by facilitating clear communications between agencies and requesters and paving a potential path forward.

The bottom line is that good customer service and the use of dispute resolution skills may not stop all FOIA lawsuits but  will help keep some FOIA disputes out of the courts. Additionally, good customer service and the use of dispute resolution skills make the FOIA process more understandable and less contentious for everyone.

How Can We Help?

To use our mediation services, please contact us at ogis@nara.gov. We also provide training for agency FOIA professionals in dispute resolution skills; learn more about our training here: https://ogis.archives.gov/news-and-events/training-opportunities/dispute-resolution-skills-training.htm.

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Meet Members of the FOIA Advisory Committee


Click on the graphic to read our Twitter chats with FOIA Advisory Committee members.

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee, Sunshine Week 2015 | Leave a comment

Federal FOIA Advisory Committee Welcomes Sunshine Week

Members of the FOIA Advisory Committee join in wishing Sunshine Week a happy birthday! (NARA Identifier 6728621)

Members of the FOIA Advisory Committee join in wishing Sunshine Week a happy birthday! (NARA Identifier 6728621)

The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee is pleased to issue a joint statement, below, honoring the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week.

As regular readers of our blog know, the FOIA Advisory Committee is comprised of FOIA experts from inside and outside of government. Committee members are working collaboratively to address major issues in the FOIA process and develop consensus recommendations.

The Committee holds a public meeting once per quarter (mark your calendars for the next meeting on Tuesday, April 21). Check out the Committee’s website for the minutes and a link to videos of past meetings, and for information on how you can provide input and feedback.

Joint Statement of the Freedom of Information (FOIA) Advisory Committee


The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee joins FOIA professionals, open government advocates and journalists across the country in celebrating the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week.

The members of the FOIA Advisory Committee represent diverse views from inside and outside government, and we share the goal of improving FOIA by fostering dialogue between and among the Federal government and the requester community; receiving public comments; and developing recommendations for refining and enhancing FOIA administration.

Sunshine Week, an initiative launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, similarly brings together Federal, state and local agencies, and the public to focus on openness in government operations. Over the last decade, government agencies, media outlets, open government groups, libraries, and nonprofits around the country have embraced this celebration.

The FOIA Advisory Committee is pleased to join the effort to improve FOIA as it works on three key issues central to improving FOIA: oversight and accountability of agency FOIA programs, FOIA fees, and proactive disclosures. We look forward to continuing our work together to explore these issues over the next year and beyond, and welcome input from the public at any time. For more information, please visit https://ogis.archives.gov/foia-advisory-committee.htm.

Posted in Fees, FOIA Advisory Committee, Open Government, Sunshine Week 2015 | Leave a comment

Show Open Government Some Love this Sunshine Week


Join NARA in showing open government some love this Sunshine Week!

Join NARA in showing open government some love this Sunshine Week!

Previously we let you know about some of the ways OGIS and other federal agencies are celebrating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) during Sunshine Week. Today, we’d  like to tell you about how you can contribute to a special Sunshine Week project by our parent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

As you may know, NARA created a tool that allows the public to help make historical documents more accessible and improve search results. By using the Citizen Archivist Dashboard, you can tag and transcribe some of the millions of digitized pages of records in the National Archives Catalog.

Of the groups of records that NARA is targeting for transcription this week, people in the FOIA world might be particularly interested in helping transcribe love letters from Lyndon Baines Johnson to “Lady Bird” Johnson. As the 36th President of the United Station, LBJ signed the original FOIA bill in 1966. It is well-known, however, that he did not love the bill. The series of letters might help the FOIA community see a different side of LBJ.

If you decide to give the Citizen Dashboard a try, please use the hashtag #1000pages and tweet us @USNatArchives to let us know what you’re working on and what you find in the records!

Posted in Open Government, Sunshine Week 2015 | 1 Comment