Reserve a Seat for Dispute Resolutions Skills Training Session

Grab your ticket now for a seat at our October 18, 2016 Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals Training Session. (NARA Identifier 6367331)

Grab your ticket now for a seat at our October 18, 2016 Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals Training Session. (NARA Identifier 6367331)

We are happy to announce that registration is now open for the October 18 session of our popular Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training. The free day-long session will be at the National Archives in downtown Washington, DC, location.

During our training sessions, we help FOIA professionals develop a working knowledge of Alternative Dispute Resolution techniques, learn how working with OGIS can help resolve disputes that the agency is unable to resolve, practice active listening and good communication, and develop strategies for working with difficult people. These skills help attendees improve their interactions with FOIA requesters and colleagues within their agencies.

Session participants regularly give the program high marks, and seats fill up quickly. To reserve your seat, please register on Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/dispute-resolution-skills-training-session-october-18-2016-tickets-27754922721.

If you are interested in future Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals sessions, keep an eye on our Activities Calendar, which provides a general sense of when we plan to offer sessions.  Also keep an eye on this blog for announcements about registration and follow us on Twitter.

Posted in Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, Customer service, FOIA Public Liaisons, Training | Leave a comment

FOIA Improvement: Updating FOIA Regulations

Note: This entry is another in our series of occasional blog posts updating our efforts to implement new provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law by President Obama on June 30, 2016.

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 requires that agencies review and update their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations within 180 days of the law’s enactment—by the end of calendar 2016. The act also requires that the updated regulations include procedures for engaging in dispute resolution services through OGIS and the agency FOIA Public Liaison (FPL).

As we have talked about before, the FOIA Improvement Act expands OGIS’s role in the FOIA process by directing agencies to alert requesters of their rights to seek dispute resolution services at several times throughout the process. Prior to the law’s passage, agencies were encouraged to provide requesters with information about OGIS after the agency made its final decision on appeal. The law now requires agencies to provide requesters with information about our services and about how to contact the agency’s FPL if the agency determines there are “unusual circumstances” that meet the requirements for extending the agency’s statutory deadline for responding. The law also requires that agencies inform requesters of the availability of OGIS and the FPL to help resolve disputes if the agency makes an adverse determination during its initial processing of a request. (We have model language agencies can use to alert requesters to our services in each if these instances).

Our expanded role in the process is reflected in the updated FOIA regulations template that the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice issued last week. In addition to noting that the agency will inform requesters of their right to seek dispute resolution services from us and the agency’s FPL, the updated template also informs requesters that the mediation process is voluntary and that if the agency agrees to participate in the process, it will “actively engage” to resolve the dispute.

OGIS monitors and regularly comments on proposed FOIA regulations. If you would like to keep up with proposed FOIA regulations, one easy way to do so is to subscribe to the Federal Register and set your preferences to alert you to terms like “FOIA” and “Freedom of Information Act.” This will ensure that you never miss a chance to make your voice heard as new regulations are proposed.

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Regulations | Leave a comment

National Archives’ Open Government Plan 4.0 Open for Comment

The National Archives published its Open Government Plan 4.0 on Github to make it easier for the public to provide feedback and suggestions. (NARA Identifier 1633507)

The National Archives published its Open Government Plan 4.0 on Github to make it easier for the public to provide feedback and suggestions. (NARA Identifier 1633507)

As the Archivist of the United States announced earlier this week, you can now review and comment on  the National Archives and Records Administration’s Open Government Plan 4.0 on Github. The plan covers steps the National Archives intends to take over the next two years to strengthen open government within our agency and across the Federal government.

The plan discusses our continued work leading and supporting the 2016-2018 term of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee. As discussed in a fact sheet released by the White House marking the President’s signature of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and in remarks by U. S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan during the committee’s kick-off meeting, the Committee is charged with looking broadly at the challenges that agency FOIA programs will face in light of an ever-increasing volume of electronic records; the committee also is tasked with charting a course for how FOIA should operate in the future.

NARA’s plan also includes the two commitments we made as part on the ongoing effort to modernize the administration of FOIA in the Third National Open Government Action Plan. One of the commitments is to develop materials that will help students understand the purpose and power of FOIA (learn more about how you can help with this effort here). The second commitment is to work with the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy to develop best practices for making agency FOIA webpages more informative and user-friendly.

The National Archives is treating this plan as a living document and will update the plan based on the feedback received. We hope you will check out the plan and take a few moments to share any of your suggestions!

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee, Open Government | Leave a comment

Chief FOIA Officers Council Meeting Scheduled for September 15

OIP released its assessment of the "Release to One" pilot program in June 2016.

OIP released its assessment of the “Release to One” pilot program in June 2016.

At its September 15, 2016, meeting, the Chief FOIA Officers Council will continue discussing the implementation of a “release to one, release to all” Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy, which calls for agencies to post copies of all records released under FOIA on their websites.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) recently released the results of a pilot program designed to weigh the costs and benefits of a “release to one, release to all” policy. The White House fact sheet announcing the President’s signature of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, which established of the Chief FOIA Officers Council, among other FOIA improvements, noted that the White House was tasking the Council with evaluating the lessons learned during the pilot and promoting the adoption of the policy government-wide.

During its initial meeting on July 22, 2016, the Chief FOIA Officers Council discussed several possible challenges agencies face in adopting the policy, including the need to make all records posted compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act , which requires Federal agencies to make their records accessible to people with disabilities.  At its second meeting, the Council will discuss concerns about the policy raised by investigative journalists. OIP’s report explains that some journalists have expressed concern that providing all released records to their competitors might create a disincentive for journalists to use FOIA.

The public is welcome to attend the meeting, and there will be time for the public to address comments to the Council. For additional information about the meeting, keep an eye on OIP’s homepage. You can RSVP to attend the meeting by emailing DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “CFO Council Meeting – Public” by September 7, 2016.

Posted in About OGIS, Open Government | Leave a comment

OGIS Embraces Transparency

OGIS embraces transparency and proactive disclosures. (NARA Identifier 7140623)

OGIS embraces transparency and proactive disclosures. (NARA Identifier 7140623)

Conventional wisdom holds that one strategy for improving the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process is to routinely publish agency records that might be of interest to the public. The term of art FOIA enthusiasts use for publishing agency information before anyone makes a FOIA request is proactive disclosure.

We at OGIS make it a priority to help the public better understand our work by making certain types of information available. Here is a brief guide to some proactive disclosures you can find on our website:

  • Annual Reports –Our Annual Reports, published since 2010, include information about the volume and types of mediation cases we handled during the previous fiscal year, findings of our compliance program, and our outreach efforts.
  • Director’s Calendar – We periodically publish our director’s calendar to help the public better understand our day-to-day operations and priorities.
  • Congressional Testimony – We make all of our congressional testimony available on a single page, helping the public understand what we are saying to Congress.
  • Statements and Executive Correspondence– We publish many of the official letters we send to other agencies so that the public can better understand our relationship with other agencies. We recently added a page linking to all of our correspondence with agencies about our request that agencies add a routine use to their Privacy Act/ FOIA system of records. The routine-use procedure makes it easier for agencies and OGIS to discuss FOIA requests that are the subject of requests for OGIS assistance.
  • OGIS Activities Calendar – We publish and update a calendar of our planned activities for the fiscal year.
  • Final Response Letters to Customers – We publish these letters to help the public better understand the types of cases OGIS assists with and the results. You can also download the posted letters by fiscal year.
  • Mediation Program Performance Statistics – Each quarter, we publish the status and accomplishments of our mediation program. You can also download all of the metrics.
Posted in About OGIS, Open Government | Leave a comment

The ABC’s of OGIS Training

Lady Bird Johnson practices her active listening skills while visiting school children. (NARA Identifier 2803425)

Lady Bird Johnson practices her active listening skills while visiting school children. (NARA Identifier 2803425)

As summer winds down and pictures of kids on their first day of school fill up our social media feeds, we thought it might be a good time for a pop quiz on OGIS’s training program. Test your knowledge with the true/false statements below.

Statement 1: OGIS recently launched its training program.

Answer 1: False. OGIS has provided training in Dispute Resolution for FOIA Professionals since March 2010. Since its launch, more than 700 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) professionals have attended this training.

Statement 2: You should sign up for OGIS’s dispute resolution skills training session only if you are a FOIA Public Liaison.

Answer 2: False. Training on dispute resolution skills is helpful for all FOIA professionals who wish to improve customer service and communicate with FOIA requesters or colleagues more effectively.

Statement 3: OGIS can provide agency-specific training.

Answer 3: True. OGIS has provided training on dispute resolution skills to several agencies—sometimes as a part of a FOIA training conference or as an agency specific training. If you would like to talk to us more about how we can provide training for your staff, please email us.

Statement 4: I can reserve a seat for OGIS’s next training session.

Answer 4: False. Reservations for our training sessions are on a first-come, first-served basis. We publish an activities calendar including our training sessions at the beginning of each Fiscal Year. The best way to know when reservations are open for our next session is to follow this blog (we add new posts each Wednesday), or follow us on Twitter (@FOIA_Ombuds). Please be advised that training sessions generally fill up within a few hours of our announcement.

Statement 5: OGIS’s goal is to make participants into certified mediators.

Answer 5: False. Participants will not be certified mediators by the end of the program. However, participants will be exposed to many of the skills that are an important part of dispute resolution, including active listening. Participants will also have an opportunity to put their new skills to the test during role playing exercises (which is more fun than it sounds, honest)!

Posted in About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Customer service, Training | Leave a comment

Improvements to TSA FOIA Program

TSA's response to our follow up questionnaire describes a number of positive steps to improve its FOIA program. (NARA ID 5699547)

TSA’s response to our follow up questionnaire describes a number of positive steps to improve its FOIA program. (NARA ID 5699547)

Last month we received an update from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regarding changes it has made to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program since we issued our assessment of the program earlier this year. We are happy to hear that TSA has taken a number of positive steps in response to our recommendations. As a result of these changes, TSA reports that it has reduced its backlog, increased the timeliness of its responses, and improved its communication with requesters.

TSA reported establishing performance metrics for FOIA analysts and case closure goals for the office resulting in reducing its backlog in the four months since the metrics were put into place. TSA also reported that it is creating standard operating procedures that will explain the entire TSA FOIA process and improve coordination with the TSA office that reviews Sensitive Security Information (SSI).

Additionally, TSA reported changes to improve the FOIA program’s communication with requesters, including following current guidance from the Department of Justice regarding the use of still interested letters to administratively close requests and providing requesters with examples of the types of information usually withheld in its checklist of exemptions cited. TSA also reported that it plans to add a metric to its performance plans that requires FOIA analysts to proactively communicate with requesters.

You can find TSA’s response and all of our assessment reports and follow up questionnaires on our Agency Compliance Reports page. To stay current on our compliance program, please keep an eye on the page and follow us on Twitter!

Posted in Review | Leave a comment

Upcoming Training Opportunity for FOIA Professionals

Agencies are open for business and ready to assist requesters! (NARA Identifier 2128042)

Agencies are open for business and ready to assist requesters! (NARA Identifier 2128042)

FOIA Public Liaisons and the professionals who staff FOIA requester service centers play a key role in the FOIA process—they provide valuable assistance with a process that can confuse requesters. The recently passed FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 expands the role that these professionals play, requiring agencies to notify requesters about FOIA Public Liaisons and requester service centers more frequently and earlier in the process. So how can agencies continue to provide great customer service through their Public Liaisons and requester service centers despite an increase in demand?

On Monday, August 15, 2016, OGIS and the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP) will present a training session for all FOIA Public Liaisons and FOIA Requester Service Center staff. We will clarify roles and responsibilities, share customer service and dispute resolution tips, and discuss best practices. Please register and join us!

FOIA Public Liaison and FOIA Requester Service Center Training
Monday, August 15, 2016 – 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Department of Justice Conference Center
145 N Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002

If you are interested in attending, please email your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “FOIA Public Liaison & FOIA Requester Service Center Training.” If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

If you are unable to attend the August 15 session—or you work outside of the Washington, D.C. area—fear not! We plan to review the presentation material by teleconference in the coming weeks. If you are interested in being a part of this teleconference, please send an email to DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov  with the subject line “FOIA Public Liaison & FOIA Requester Service Center Training – Teleconference.”

Posted in Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, Customer service, Training | Leave a comment

OGIS Releases Assessment of Secret Service FOIA Program

Our report includes observations and recommendations for the United States Secret Service's FOIA program. (NARA identifier 6520033)

Our compliance assessment includes observations and recommendations for the United States Secret Service’s FOIA program. (NARA identifier 6520033)

Today we are releasing a report on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program at the United States Secret Service (USSS), the fifth in our series of assessments of FOIA programs at components of the Department of Homeland Security. Like other OGIS reports on agency FOIA program assessments, the report includes findings and recommendations about the USSS FOIA Program.

USSS’s FOIA Program is centralized; program offices search for responsive records and the FOIA office processes them and responds to the requester. USSS accepts requests by mail, email, online using the DHS online submission form, or through the DHS FOIA app by mobile phone.

Between Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 and FY 2015, the USSS FOIA Program received an average of almost 1,300 requests per year, ranging from a low of 897 in FY 2011 to a high of 1,595 in FY 2012. From FY 2009 to FY 2015, the backlog at USSS increased by almost 86 percent from 426 requests to 791 requests. During the same period, the number of requests USSS received rose by about 52 percent and the number of requests processed grew by about 29 percent. USSS’s FOIA staff also grew by almost 38 percent between FY 2009 and FY 2015.

Among our recommendations are that USSS:

  • Adopt management controls and continue working towards using metrics in employee performance goals;
  • Create a formal data-driven backlog reduction plan;
  • Ensure the FOIA branch has sufficient IT support; and
  • Regularly communicate with requesters about the status of requests, particularly regarding the oldest cases.

We will follow up with USSS in 120 days to learn what actions it has taken to address our findings and recommendations.

Posted in Review | Leave a comment

Introducing FOIA to a New Generation of Requesters

teens  23932367

We hope our work will help young researchers learn to love FOIA. (NARA Identifier 23932367)

In October 2015, the White House released the Third U.S. Government National Action Plan. While NAP 3.0 includes a number of useful commitments from the National Archives, we are particularly excited about OGIS’s commitment to develop curriculum tools to introduce secondary students to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

FOIA is a powerful tool for those who wish to learn more about how government agencies do their work, but too many are unaware that the right to request government records exists. In collaboration with the National Archives’ Education and Public Programs Division, OGIS is developing teaching resources about FOIA that can be easily integrated into secondary school lesson plans. We envision these materials fitting neatly into existing units in social studies, history, civics, and government classes (but we can’t wait to hear how educators in other areas use them!).

In order to illustrate the power of records to shed light on the government’s actions, these lessons will link FOIA to key historical events. As a first step, OGIS solicited input from staff across the National Archives to help identify records in the National Archives Catalog that link to important points in history.

We also hope that you can suggest records in the National Archives Catalog that will help students understand the role of records in improving understanding of the government’s actions. If you do, please join the conversation on History Hub, NARA’s online community for researchers, citizen historians, archival professionals, and open government advocates.

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Posted in About FOIA, Open Government | 2 Comments