Advisory Committee Puts Forward Unanimous Recommendations to Improve FOIA

FOIA Act Advisory Committee Meeting

Members of the FOIA Advisory Committee during their meeting at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2016. NARA photo by Brogan Jackson.

On January 16, 2018 the FOIA Advisory Committee voted unanimously* in support of several recommendations to improve the administration of FOIA. Members of the three Subcommittees – Proactive Disclosure, Efficiency and Resources, and Searches – spent a little over a year researching issues and developing these recommendations.

The FOIA Advisory Committee brings together agency FOIA professionals and requesters to identify the greatest challenges in the implementation of FOIA and to develop consensus recommendations to address these issues. The Committee’s membership reflects the diversity of the FOIA community – including representatives of Cabinet-level and independent agencies, journalists, historians, academics, commercial requesters, open government advocates and others.

During the meeting, the Committee discussed and voted to support four proposals from the Proactive Disclosures Subcommittee. The aim of the proposals is to:

  • increase the release of agency FOIA logs in a way that is most useful to improving understanding of agency records and how the law is being used;
  • provide agencies with criteria for setting priorities for proactive disclosure;
  • give agencies a guide to categories of records that should be regularly released based on the ease of making them available and their importance for understanding the government’s actions; and
  • address requirements that documents on agency’s FOIA websites are accessible to individuals with disabilities.

The Committee opted to table one item from a Proactive Disclosure Subcommittee recommendation involving categories of records that should be proactively published; members of the Committee will further investigate agency policies concerning the publication of employee email addresses and consider the matter again at its next meeting.  The Committee also made changes to the Section 508 accessibility recommendation to highlight the sense of the Committee that agencies should be encouraged to not remove documents that are useful to the public from an agency’s FOIA website. Finally, the Committee also voted to support a set of best practices identified by the Efficiency and Resources Subcommittee and a set of recommendations and best practices offered up by the Searches Subcommittee. Minutes from the meeting and revised recommendations will be posted on the FOIA Advisory Committee webpages as soon as practicable; in the meantime, you can find video of the meeting on the NARA YouTube Channel.

At the FOIA Advisory Committee’s final meeting of the 2016-2018 Term, which will be held in the William G. McGowan Theater on April 17, 2018 from 10 am to 1 pm, the Committee will vote on its Final Report. The Committee’s Final Report will include all of its final recommendations and a description of the Committee’s research and deliberations. You can keep up with the work of the FOIA Advisory Committee by regularly checking this blog and following us on Twitter.

*In order to avoid a potential conflict of interest, the Director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) abstained from voting on all of the recommendations, and the Director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) abstained from voting on specific recommendations related to OGIS and the Chief FOIA Officers Council.

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Mark Your Calendars for Sunshine Week 2018 at the National Archives

SunshineWeek2018FinalAs most of the United States digs out and warms up from the latest blast of wintery weather, we at OGIS are happy to share the news that we are busy planning for Sunshine Week 2018!

Sunshine Week is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information. Since the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) launched the initiative more than a decade ago, it has been embraced by journalists, librarians, concerned citizens, civil society organizations, elected official, and government employees alike as an opportunity to discuss the importance of open government and its impact.

Sunshine Week 2018 at the National Archives will be held in the William G. McGowan Theater during the afternoon of Monday, March 12th. The event will be free and open to the public, both in person and via a live web stream. For those who miss out, we also post video after the event (you can find video of our 2017 event here).

Be sure to regularly check out this blog and follow us on Twitter for updates on this year’s Sunshine Week program and participants!

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Mark Your Calendars for the January 16, 2018 FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

FOIA Act Advisory Committee Meeting

Members of the FOIA Advisory Committee during their meeting at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2016. NARA photo by Brogan Jackson.

Registration is now open for the January 16, 2018 meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee! The meeting is scheduled to run from 10 am to 1 pm in the William G. McGowan Theater.

As we have shared with you all before, the FOIA Advisory Committee has been hard at work for more than a year examining some of the major challenges to FOIA and developing recommendations to the Archivist to improve the law’s administration. During the January 16th meeting, we expect the Committee to further discuss, refine and vote on the draft recommendations developed by its three subcommittees – Proactive Disclosure, Efficiencies and Resources, and Searches.

We hope you will join us in person for the meeting. For those of you who cannot make it to the theater, the meeting will also be livestreamed via the National Archives’ YouTube Channel. You can also follow the FOIA Advisory Committee’s work by visiting this section of our website, and email any feedback you want to share with Committee members by emailing foia-advisory-committee@nara.gov.

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DOJ Releases FOIA Website Guidance 2.0

SOUTHERN WATCH

New guidance for more user-friendly FOIA webpages. (NARA ID 6609911)

The Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP) recently issued updated guidance for agency FOIA webpages. The guidance provides helpful recommendations for agencies to ensure that requesters can find useful resources and information.

OIP’s guidance suggests that agencies ensure that members of the public can easily locate agency FOIA webpages by including a clear link to the FOIA webpages on the homepage. OIP also recommends that agency FOIA webpages cover three general categories of information. The categories of information are:

  • Public Interest – this category includes the agency’s FOIA library, which should include all frequently requested documents;
  • Making and tracking an existing FOIA request – this category includes the agency’s FOIA Reference Guide, FOIA regulations, and contact information for the FOIA Requester Service Center and FOIA Public Liaison; and
  • FOIA performance and operations – this category includes the agency’s Annual FOIA Report and Chief FOIA Officer Report.

OIP’s guidance also includes other suggestions that agencies should take into consideration when reviewing their FOIA webpages. Specifically, OIP suggests that agencies:

  • ensure the FOIA webpages meet any agency or government-wide styling conventions;
  • use plain language;
  • regularly review content to ensure that it is up-to-date and that links are correct; and
  • work with their web team to improve the quality of the FOIA webpages.

OIP’s new guidance is based in part on feedback gathered in a joint Requester Roundtable we co-hosted with OIP in June 2016.  Do you have any other suggestions for how agencies can make their FOIA webpages more informative? If so let us know in the comments!

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OGIS Publishes Fiscal Year 2018 Activities Calendar

OGIS Calendar FY 2018Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 is shaping up to be another busy year at OGIS!

This week we are happy to announce the release of our FY 2018 Activities Calendar. The calendar shows our tentative schedule for upcoming agency compliance and issue assessments and our popular Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training sessions. The calendar also shows the dates for many of our events, including the remaining meetings of the 2016-2018 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee, our Sunshine Week event, and OGIS’s Second Annual Open Meeting.

If you don’t have your 2018 calendar yet, or just like seeing reminders of OGIS’s activities and events, the best way to keep up with our work is to follow us on Twitter and subscribe to our blog posts. We also invite you to share any feedback or suggest any issues for OGIS to assess in the comments section!

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OGIS Joins in Thanksgiving 2017

President Franklin Roosevelt carves a Thanksgiving Day turkey (NARA Identifier 6728549)

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we want to take some time to give thanks for the many individuals who have worked with us over the past year to help improve the FOIA process. In particular, we want to recognize the members of the Chief FOIA Officers Council and the FOIA Advisory Committee.

Earlier this year we were very pleased to be able to open the doors of the William G. McGowan Theater to co-chair a meeting of the Chief FOIA Officers Council with the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy. Thanks to the discussion of our excellent panelists, we picked up great insight into how collaboration can improve the FOIA process for requesters and agencies. Participants also provided us with valuable feedback on how best to ensure that requesters understand the FOIA process and have a clear sense of who they can contact if they need assistance. As a result of the feedback, OIP published an updated template letter that it recommends agencies use to alert requesters of dispute resolutions services from FOIA Public Liaisons and OGIS, as well as appeal rights (you can find the updated template on our website).

The Chief FOIA Officers Council has an impressive mandate from Congress. The Council is charged with: developing recommendations for increasing FOIA compliance and efficiency; disseminating information about agency experiences, ideas, best practices, and innovative approaches related to FOIA; identifying, developing, and coordinating initiatives to increase transparency and compliance with FOIA; and promoting the development and use of common performance measures for agency compliance with FOIA. We look forward to continuing to work with our co-chair and the Council’s members to meet these challenges.

The FOIA Advisory Committee has also been instrumental in identifying methods to improve the administration of FOIA. By design, the Committee’s members represent a range of interests in the FOIA community, including large departments, small agencies, journalists, historians, and others who each bring a unique perspective to the work. We are extremely excited about the range of draft recommendations under development during the Committee’s current term. We encourage you to take a look at the Committee’s work and send any feedback to foia-advisory-committee@nara.gov.

Is there someone in the FOIA community that you are thankful for? Let us know in the comments!

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Making it Easier for OGIS to Assist You with Resolving Your FOIA Disputes

010207-F-2352G-030

We are continuing to work with agencies to make it easier for OGIS to help resolve disputes. (NARA ID 6515808)

Over the last few years we have made a concerted effort to highlight the relatively simple step that agencies can take to make it easier for OGIS to fulfill its statutory responsibilities to both resolve FOIA disputes between requesters and agencies as well as conduct agency assessment compliance reviews. This simple step involves publishing a notice in the Federal Register that allows the agency to discuss its FOIA case files with us without first having to obtain a privacy consent statement from the requester. OGIS updates a list of agencies that have published this notice on our website.

We need to obtain a privacy consent statement or waiver from agencies that have not published this notice because FOIA case files generally include personally identifiable information (PII) that is protected by the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. §552a. In order for an agency to share its files with OGIS without the need for the requester to provide their express consent, the agency may publish a System of Records Notice (SORN) in the Federal Register that includes a “routine use” exception. Such an exception explains the files can be shared with OGIS so that we can fulfill our statutory responsibilities to review policies and procedures and offer services to resolve FOIA disputes. Having a SORN in place also allows OGIS to more easily fulfill its statutory responsibilities of compliance review of individual agencies’ FOIA offices. OGIS developed model “routine use” language with the Department of Justice several years ago.)

In anticipation of OGIS’s expanded role in resolving disputes throughout the FOIA process as a result of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, we contacted all of the federal agencies subject to FOIA and asked that they make it easier for us to provide assistance by publishing a FOIA/PA SORN with a routine use exception for OGIS.  We also posted all of these letters and responses from the agencies on our website.

We have made progress, but we are only one third of the way there. As of this date, 13 out of the 15 Cabinet-level departments, and 25 of the approximately 115 independent agencies that are subject to FOIA have published FOIA/PA SORNs that allow them to share files with OGIS. We look forward to continuing to add to our list of agencies that do not require requesters to authorize us in advance prior to discussing their requests with the agency, and we will continue to follow up with agencies that have not yet responded to our request and post any updates on our website.

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Useful Resources for Veterans Records


We hope you can visit the Remembering Vietnam exhibition in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, Washington, D.C., from November 10, 2017 to January 6, 2019. (NARA Identifier 530622)

We often receive requests for assistance to obtain access to veterans’ medical and service records of those men and women who have served our country in the armed forces.  These requests come from the veterans themselves, from their family members, and from interested researchers, historians, scholars and journalists. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri, is one of NARA’s largest operations and serves as a repository for Official Military Personnel files (OMPFs) from all service branches for veterans as far back as 1885. These include Army, Army Air Corps, Army Air Forces, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. OMPFs of veterans who were discharged prior to 1955 are part of NARA’s archival holdings. For veterans who separated from military service after 1955, NPRC can still help provide access to those OMPFs.

In the interest of making it easier for the public to understand what agency might hold a veteran’s records, and the process that someone must follow to request these records, we asked some of our staff to share the resources that they find must useful when helping someone who is having difficulty obtaining veteran records.

Suggested Resources for Veterans and Their Families

Other Suggested Resources for Archival Military Records for Historical Research

NARA is also excited to announce the opening of the Remembering Vietnam exhibition in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, Washington, D.C., from November 10, 2017 to January 6, 2019. This exhibition will present both iconic and recently discovered NARA records related to 12 critical episodes in the Vietnam War.

Do you have any suggested resources or tips to help the public request veterans’ records? Let us know in the comments or Tweet your suggestion to @FOIA_Ombuds!

Posted in About FOIA, Customer service | 1 Comment

National Archives Releases New JFK Records

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy pose for a portrait with their children, Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr., on a porch in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. (Accession Number ST-22-1-62)

Last week there was a surge of excitement surrounding the National Archives’ release of new government records concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (JFK). We thought this might be a good opportunity to join our colleagues in celebrating the release of this new historical material, and explain how the release of these records is distinct from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Last week’s release of records was made under the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. As specified by the law, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) established a special collection of these records, the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection, in November 1992. The collection consists of approximately five million pages of records, the vast majority of which has been publicly available without any restrictions since the late 1990s.

The Act requires that “[e]ach assassination record shall be publicly disclosed in full, and available in the Collection no later than the date that is 25 years after the date of enactment of this Act unless the President certifies, as required by this Act, that continued postponement is made necessary by” specific identifiable harm. Critically, Congress specified that the records under the JFK Act be reviewed according to less restrictive standards  than those under FOIA. As explained on the National Archives’ webpage of Frequently Asked Questions about the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection, “[t]he grounds for postponement under the JFK Act are much more narrowly drawn than the exemption categories of the FOIA[;] therefore more information has been released under the provisions of the JFK Act than would have been released under the provisions of the FOIA.”

If you are interested in learning more about last week’s release of records and what to expect in the future, we strongly recommend that you read the Archivist’s extremely helpful blog post on AOTUS Blog, “National Archives Releases JFK Assassination Records,” which also includes links to other useful resources on the topic.

Posted in About FOIA, Government information, National Archives and Records Administration | Leave a comment

Catch Up with the 2016-2018 FOIA Advisory Committee!

FOIA Act Advisory Committee Meeting

Discussion during the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) advisory committee meeting at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2016. NARA photo by Brogan Jackson.

On October 19, 2017 the FOIA Advisory Committee worked its way through a jam-packed agenda, including discussion of draft recommendations from each of the three subcommittees – Searches; Efficiency and Resources; and Proactive Disclosure.

As the Archivist of the United States noted in his welcoming remarks, a uniting theme for all three subcommittees is the radical impact that technology has had on the way that the government operates, and the public’s expectations for openness. To help set the stage for the Committee’s deliberations, we invited the National Archives’ former Director of Litigation, Jason R. Baron, to speak about how the transition to a fully digital electronic record keeping environment will impact access to agency records under FOIA. One of the main takeaways of Mr. Baron’s presentation is that it is critical for agency FOIA professionals to recognize that as agencies continue to implement modern email records management and other electronic records management policies, the volume of records that will need to be searched in response to a FOIA request will increase exponentially.  As a result, agencies have an obligation to ensure that they have conducted an adequate search of this material. Mr. Baron recommended that in order to meet this challenge, agencies should learn from how  legal counsel are meeting their obligations to produce records in litigation and adopt similar the use of similar eDiscovery software, and that agencies should invest in research into predictive coding techniques that make the review process less burdensome.

After Mr. Baron’s presentation, the Committee discussed draft recommendations developed by each of the subcommittees. You can find drafts of these recommendations on the FOIA Advisory Committee’s Meetings webpage. Below is a brief summary of the subcommittees’ proposals:

  • The Searches Subcommittee presented a number of recommendations aimed at improving understanding of agencies’ email search capabilities, ensuring searches for records are completed in a timely fashion by expanding the use of employee FOIA performance measures, and encouraging collaboration between FOIA and agency Information Technology (IT) offices. The subcommittee also presented draft best practices.
  • The Efficiency and Resources Subcommittee presented best practices and potential benefits that they observed through a series of interviews with select large and medium agencies that were identified as “high performers;” the practices fell into three general categories: managing the FOIA process; bringing in talent; and using technology to improve the process.
  • The Proactive Disclosure Subcommittee kicked off their discussion with a presentation by Max Galka, the founder of FOIA Mapper. Mr. Galka discussed how he digitized FOIA logs for a number of agencies and put them online as a resource for requesters. He explained that requesters can use this repository to better understand the kinds of records that the agency has and craft better, more targeted FOIA requests. This presentation set the stage for the subcommittee’s discussion of its draft recommendations. The subcommittee presented three draft recommendations: increasing the release of agency FOIA logs in a way that is most useful to improving understanding of agency records and how the law is being used; providing agencies with criteria for setting priorities for proactive disclosure; and giving agencies a guide to categories of records that should be regularly released based on the ease of making them available and their importance for understanding the government’s actions. The Proactive Disclosure Subcommittee also said that they are continuing to develop a recommendation to address making records released under FOIA and posted on an agency website accessible to individuals with disabilities.

During their discussion of these proposals, Committee members noted that several of the draft recommendations and best practices are closely aligned and could be combined. Committee members also gave feedback on specific parts of the draft proposals, and discussed how the Committee can accelerate the adoption of some of the best practices by issuing specific recommendations.

Our expectation is that between now and the next FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting, scheduled for January 16, 2018, each of the subcommittees will take the feedback they received from the full Committee and continue to refine their recommendations. The Committee is expected to vote on the recommendations at the January 2018 meeting.

If you are interested in keeping up with the work of the FOIA Advisory Committee, or contribute any comments on the recommendations the Committee is considering, be sure to regularly check this blog, and follow us on Twitter.

Posted in Best practices, Electronic records, FOIA Advisory Committee | 1 Comment