Guest Post: Catching Up with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Eureka! This painting by Gary Sheehan depicts the moment in 1942 when scientists observed the world's first nuclear reactor as it became self-sustaining.

Eureka! This painting by Gary Sheehan depicts the moment in 1942 when scientists observed the world’s first nuclear reactor as it became self-sustaining. (National Archives Identifier 542144)

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.

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Best practices, Customer service, Electronic records, Guest post, Ombudsman, Records Management, Team approach | Leave a comment

OGIS Sets Up Shop at IRE

OGIS offered ombuds advice -- but sadly, not lemonade -- at the recent IRE conference.

OGIS offered ombuds advice, rather than lemonade, at the recent IRE conference. National Archives Identifier 557757

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!

 

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Mediation services, OGIS events, Ombudsman | Leave a comment

FOIA Advisory Committee begins setting priorities

 

FOIA Advisory Committee members have lots of ideas for bettering FOIA. (Photo by Michelle Farnsworth of the National Archives)

FOIA Advisory Committee members have lots of ideas for bettering FOIA.
(Photo by Michelle Farnsworth of the National Archives)

 

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!

 

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, FOIA Advisory Committee | 2 Comments

Upcoming OGIS Training Session: Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals

Learn strategies for dispute resolution and stop butting heads with colleagues and requesters. (National Archives Identifier 7722542)

Learn strategies for dispute resolution and stop butting heads with colleagues and requesters. (National Archives Identifier 7722542)

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 ogis@nara.gov. Space for this training program is extremely limited and the program fills up quickly, so please don’t wait to register.

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, Customer service, OGIS events, Ombudsman, Training | 1 Comment

Register to attend the June 24, 2014 FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

Use Eventbrite to register for the FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

Use Eventbrite to register to attend the FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

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 ogis@nara.gov.

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, FOIA Advisory Committee | 1 Comment

FOIA Advisory Committee to Meet June 24

The FOIA Advisory Committee will be called to order on June 24, 2014. (NARA Identifier 6011299)

The FOIA Advisory Committee will be called to order on June 24, 2014. (NARA Identifier 6011299)

The first meeting of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee is scheduled for June 24, 2014 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. The meeting will be open to the public and we will provide registration information in the coming weeks.

The FOIA Advisory Committee was established in May 2014 under the second Open Government National Action Plan (NAP). The Committee’s goal is to advise on ways to improve the administration of FOIA. The Committee will study the current FOIA landscape across the Executive Branch and may recommend legislative action, policy changes or executive action, among other matters.

Archivist of the United States David Ferriero appointed the 20 members of the Committee last month. There are 10 members from within government and 10 non-governmental members who have considerable FOIA expertise and who were selected to achieve a balanced representation. Committee members are appointed to serve a two-year term. OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet will chair the Committee. ​

The​ ​FOIA Advisory Committee will meet up to four times per year. Stay tuned for more information about the Committee’s first meeting — we hope to see you there!

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, FOIA Advisory Committee, OGIS events, Ombudsman, Open Government | Leave a comment

OGIS is Hiring!

We are looking for new OGIS teammates -- come join us! (NARA identifier 515313)

We are looking for new OGIS teammates — come join us! (NARA identifier 515313)

The OGIS team is expanding, adding an additional three positions to the staff at its Washington, D.C. office.

Two of the new positions will be part of OGIS’s review team, which works to review agencies’ FOIA policies, procedures and compliance. One position will carry out OGIS’s mediation services, working with agencies and requesters to prevent and resolve FOIA disputes. Interested individuals may apply online through USAJobs.

Come join the OGIS team!

Posted in About OGIS, Mediation services, Ombudsman | 1 Comment

Improving FOIA Regulations: We Need Your Help!

Developing a common FOIA regulation is one of the commitments of the second Open Government National Action Plan to modernize FOIA.

Agency FOIA professionals and regulatory specialists interested in what a common FOIA regulation might look like are invited to a meeting that will kick off the interagency process of developing the regulation.

The meeting is from 1 p.m. to 3 pm. Thursday May 29 at the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), 1425 New York Ave. NW, Suite 11050 in Washington, DC, near the McPherson Square Metro stop on the Blue/Orange lines and Metro Center on the Metro’s Red Line.

To register, email your name and phone number to doj.oip.foia@usdoj.gov. Hope to see you there!

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Best practices, FOIA Public Liaisons, OGIS events, Ombudsman, Open Government | Leave a comment

Customer Service: it’s a Smart Practice—and it’s the Law!

Providing excellent customer service makes the FOIA process run more smoothly—and it’s the law! (NARA Identifier 196402)

Providing excellent customer service makes the FOIA process run more smoothly—and it’s the law! (NARA Identifier 196402)

Our last post offers some practical tips for FOIA professionals wishing to incorporate alternative dispute resolution into the FOIA process. We picked up more good ideas later in the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) 7th Annual National Training Conference during a session titled “Customer Service—It’s the Law!”

The session, which included FOIA professionals Jay Olin from the National Archives and Records Administration and Kathy Ray from the Department of Transportation, focused on the role of the FOIA Public Liaison (FPL).

First, a bit of history: although FPLs are mentioned twice in the statute, as amended by the OPEN Government Act of 2007, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(B)(ii) and  5 U.S.C. § 552(l), Executive Order (EO) 13392 established the FPL role in 2005. The EO mandated that FPLs “seek to ensure a service-oriented response to FOIA requests and FOIA-related inquires.”

For DOT’s Ray, that meant compiling an FPL handbook which contains, among other documents, the statute with the above-noted sections highlighted; DOT’s FOIA regulation; DOT’s Annual FOIA Report and  Chief FOIA Officer report; and a log to document the statutorily mandated work the FPL does to

  • reduce delays;
  • increase transparency and understand the status of requests; and
  • resolve disputes.

The handbook is meant to be a resource not just for FPLs, but all DOT FOIA professionals, Ray said.

Ray, Olin and several panel attendees noted the importance of educating two audiences about the FOIA process: requesters and program managers who hold the records being requested.

Finally, as we’ve written about before, plain writing contributes greatly to excellent customer service. One attendee noted that after she attended an ASAP session on plain writing a year ago, she began checking readability statistics of her FOIA program’s correspondence and tweaked accordingly. (In Microsoft Office Word, go to “Spelling & Grammar” → “Word Options” → “Show readability statistics.”)

The tool measures the percentage of passive sentences, a Flesch Reading Ease score (a 0-to-100 scale with a score of 60 to 70 indicating ease of understanding for the typical 13- to 15-year-old) and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score.

The bottom line, panelists and attendees agreed, is in written correspondence with requesters, do more than just cite an exemption: explain it and, if possible, the types of information withheld under the exemption.

Have other thoughts? Drop us a line.

(So how did we do with this blog post? Just 9 percent of our sentences are passive—not bad for writing about an event that occurred in the past (May 14). But a Flesch Reading Ease score of 43.9 isn’t great. And a grade level score of 11.7 is a bit high. Must be the statutory cites and the acronyms!)

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, Customer service, FOIA Public Liaisons, Mediation services, Ombudsman, Plain Language | Leave a comment

FOIA and Dispute Resolution: Voices from the Field

Good communications help agencies and requesters work as a team to get the job done. (NARA identifier 651412)

Good communications help agencies and requesters work as a team to get the job done. (NARA identifier 651412)

This year’s American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) Annual Training Conference included a panel titled “FOIA and Dispute Resolution.” The panel included Kathy Ray from the Department of Transportation and Brad Heath, a USA Today reporter and frequent FOIA requester. The session was completely full, and there were lots of questions and excellent discussion.

The panel focused on how agencies are resolving FOIA disputes (as they are instructed to do by the 2007 OPEN Government Act). The panelists and audience agreed that the most important tool for resolving FOIA disputes (and encouraging better requests) is good communications. No big surprise there, but what does that actually look like?

Here are some practical dispute resolution tips that the panelists and audience shared:

  • Part of our job as FOIA professionals is giving requesters bad news or the same news. It’s not fun, but try to get comfortable with the idea.
  • While it may not be possible at every agency, we heard that it can be helpful to have a requester speak directly to program staff.
  • When you and a requester talk, follow up with an email summarizing your discussion. This not only ensures that everyone is on the same page, but it creates accountability for everyone involved in the request (such as program staff).
  • One agency representative shared that he created a tickler file for all requests that involved 7(A) withholdings so that he can notify requesters when an investigation or proceeding ends.
  • We on the government side bemoan requests that are too broad, or imprecise, or voluminous, but remember that if we want better requests, we must be willing to educate requesters about what’s available and how to ask for it in a way that it can be found. Reach out to the requester and help him or her understand your records.
  • Think carefully before sending “still interested” letters. Remember that in many cases, the requester has been waiting for a response for months or years, so may strike the wrong tone to inform the requester that he or she must respond in a short time frame to keep that request open.

It was really wonderful to hear about all that agencies and requesters are doing to resolve—and prevent—FOIA disputes. But remember, if all else fails, OGIS is here to help.

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, FOIA Public Liaisons, Mediation services, OGIS events, Ombudsman, Team approach | Leave a comment