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!

Posted in About FOIA, Best practices, Open Government | Leave a comment

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 | Leave a comment

Grab Your Seat for Our November 16 Dispute Resolution Skills Training Session!

Be sure to RSVP ASAP to get a seat for our November 16 Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training session! (NARA ID 7431317)

Registration is now open for our November 16 Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training session. Space is limited and seats fill up fast, so make sure you act now to reserve your spot for this free training!

This training is intended to teach FOIA professionals practical communication skills to help them understand and resolve disputes – skills that can improve not only your communications with FOIA requesters, but also with your agency colleagues, and even your friends and family. We also give training participants a chance to test drive their skills and fine tune their approach through activities and a role playing exercise.

We can also offer agency-specific training. If you are a FOIA Officer and interested in having OGIS conduct a training session for your staff, please contact Carrie McGuire at carrie.mcguire@nara.gov or (202) 741-5774.

Posted in Alternative dispute resolution, Training | Leave a comment

FOIA and the Digital Future on Agenda for October 19 FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

FOIA Act Advisory Committee Meeting

Members of the FOIA advisory committee brainstorm ideas 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.

The FOIA Advisory Committee has studied and considered the profound effects that technology is having on the way that government operates, and the public’s expectations for transparent government for a little more than a year. During its October 19 meeting, we expect for the discussion to focus on the draft recommendations developed by each of the subcommittees to address these challenges.

As we announced previously, the National Archives’ former Director of Litigation, Jason R. Baron, will address the Committee and discuss the challenge of implementing FOIA in a digital world during the October 19 meeting. We anticipate that Mr. Baron will highlight the deep connection between improving electronic record keeping practices and improving access to agency records through use of FOIA.  Mr. Baron will likely also discuss the implications of the increased volume of email agencies are archiving as a result of the continued adoption of the Capstone approach to managing email records. (For those of you who are not familiar with Capstone, it is an approach to email management suggested by the National Archives that requires agencies to save most employees’ emails for at least seven years while permanently retaining email from a certain number of designated Capstone officials; you can learn about the Capstone approach in far greater detail here). We also anticipate that Mr. Baron will point to the significant increase in the volume of email that FOIA offices will need to search as Capstone continues to be implemented, and existing technology and best practices that FOIA offices can use to ensure that they meet this challenge.

We are also excited to announce that the Proactive Disclosure Subcommittee has invited Max Galka to speak about his research involving agency FOIA logs. Mr. Galka is a data scientist and entrepreneur based in New York City, and is the creator of FOIA Mapper, a search engine for offline public records, funded by the Knight Foundation.

We hope you can join us for this very exciting session. Please register via EventBrite if you plan to join us in person. If you are not in the DC area, you can watch the session via livestream on the National Archives YouTube Channel.

 

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Understanding FOIA Delay

train-199961

President Truman’s train might have run on a tight schedule, but unfortunately delay is a frequent part of the FOIA process. (NARA Identifier 199961)

One of the frustrations with the FOIA process that we hear about most frequently is the delay in an agency’s response to a request. Frequently, requesters contact us to ask why an agency has not responded within the 20 working days response time that is prescribed in the law. We understand that delays are extremely frustrating; unfortunately they are all too common at agencies that receive a large volume of requests and at agencies that are struggling to respond to a backlog of old requests.

To help requesters understand why an agency’s response may be delayed, we thought it might be useful to give you all a quick guide to where you can find statistics about an agency’s FOIA performance, and give you a few helpful hints on how to use these resources.

First: Where can you find agency FOIA performance data? Agencies report a broad range of statistics at the end of each Fiscal Year (FY) about their FOIA processing operations in annual reports that the agency submits to the Attorney General of the United States. You can generally access these reports on at least one of two websites: the agency’s FOIA reading room or the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Information Policy (OIP) FOIA Reports Web Page. OIP’s webpage provides a centralized repository of agency Annual FOIA Reports going back to FY 1998. OIP also manages a website, FOIA.gov, that allows users to pull up, compare, and download data from these reports from FY 2008 forward.

Second: What data points might help you understand an agency’s delay? [See How to find “backlog” data on FOIA.gov for a visual guide to creating reports on FOIA.gov]

  • Requests Received and Processed

The first data point we generally look at to understand an agency’s FOIA program is the number of requests that it received and processed during the Fiscal Year. These numbers will help you understand the demand for information from that agency, and the amount of work the agency was able to complete during the Fiscal Year.

If you are looking at a PDF of the agency’s report, you can find this information at the beginning of Section V, “FOIA Requests – Received, Processed and Pending FOIA Requests.” If you are using FOIA.gov to look up this information, you will want to click on the “Data” tab. Under “Select Report” choose “Requests” (this should be the default choice) and then select the agency. Click each Fiscal Year you would like to see data for and then push the “Create Report” button. A graph and the hard data will appear on the screen below.

  • Backlog

If you have already looked at information about the number of requests received and requests processed, then you also saw data about the number of FOIA requests pending at the end of the Fiscal Year. The difference between “Requests Pending” and “Backlog” is that “Backlog” includes only those requests that the agency was not able to respond to within the law’s 20 working days response time. Since agencies generally process FOIA requests on a first-in, first-out basis, understanding an agency’s backlog can help you get a sense of why it might take some time before the agency is able to respond to your request.

In the PDFs of the agency Annual FOIA Reports, Backlog is towards the end of the report, in Section XII, “Backlogs, Consultations, and Comparisons.” On FOIA.gov, on the “Data” tab, simply select the report for “Backlog,” choose the agency, click each Fiscal Year of interest, and then click on “Create Report.” A graph and the hard data will appear on the screen below.

  • Average Processing Time

Agencies report the average processing time for simple and complex cases. This data will help you understand about how long other requesters had to wait until they received a response from that agency.

In a PDF of an Annual FOIA Report, you can find this information under Section VII, “FOIA Requests: Response Time for Processed and Pending Requests.”  You can use the charts in that Section to look up the average processing time for all requests processed and for all requests where information was released during the Fiscal Year. In addition to the average, the Section also includes information on the median processing time and the lowest and highest number of days an agency took to respond to a request.

On FOIA.gov, you will find this information by selecting the “Processing Times” report and then choosing either “Pending Requests” or “Requests Granted.” Once you have chosen the report, generate a graph and the hard data by, choosing the agency, putting a checkmark next to the Fiscal Year(s) of interest, and then clicking on “Create Report.”

Do you have any other data from agency annual reports that you find helpful? Let us know via tweet to @FOIA_Ombuds or emailing us at ogis@nara.gov.

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