Teach the Children Well

DocsTeach screen shot

Our goal is to help students understand history, and the importance of open government in our democracy.

As pictures of adorable kids returning from summer vacation and starting their first day of school begin to flood our social media feeds, we thought this might be a good moment to remind you all about the National Archives’ fantastic educational resource, DocsTeach, and to note that teachers can use this tool to help students of all ages understand the importance of access to agency records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)!

DocsTeach is an online tool created by the National Archives’ Education and Public Programs division that offers teachers student activities using materials from the National Archives Catalog. Teachers can also use the tool to create their own activities to expand student understanding of a topic while also sharpening their document analysis techniques, improving their understanding of primary source documents in historical context, and more.

Last year we worked with our colleagues in the National Archives education department to leverage this tool to help teach the next generation about the FOIA. We developed an infographic explaining basic facts about the public’s rights under FOIA and what to expect during the process. The infographic uses plain language and graphics intended to help students easily understand the basic concepts of FOIA and where they can find more information about how to ask for copies of agency records. We then asked people with expertise about history and the contents of the National Archives Catalog from inside and outside of the government to let us know of any historical moments when the availability of an agency’s records helped the public to better understand the government’s actions.

Based on the feedback we received, the first activity using the infographic in DocsTeach explores the public’s response to the civil rights marches beginning in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The activity enriches student understanding of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, using Federal Bureau of Investigation records released under FOIA.

If you have any other suggestions of records in the Catalog that will help students understand the role of records in improving understanding of the government’s actions, we encourage you to join the conversation on History Hub, the National Archives’ online community for researchers, citizen historians, archival professionals, and open government advocates.

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OGIS Announces Release of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau FOIA Compliance Report

Visit our website (www.archives.gov/ogis) to see all of our agency FOIA compliance assessment reports!

We are very pleased to announce the release of our latest FOIA compliance agency assessment – this report takes an in-depth look at the operations of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) FOIA program.

OGIS’s agency assessments are based on direct observation and review of CFPB’s FOIA case files, analysis of applicable data and documents, and interviews with agency employees and officials. Our agency assessment reports are intended to provide sufficient detail about the FOIA program’s processes to understand its operations, and provide actionable recommendations to strengthen the FOIA program. These recommendations are based on our knowledge of FOIA practices across the government.

As we noted in our report, the FOIA CFPB program maintains a relatively small backlog and is able to respond to most requests well within the law’s 20 working day response time. We also noted that despite an increase in the number of requests received each fiscal year (FY), the size of CFPB’s FOIA staff has been constant since FY 2016, and is not expected to grow within the next five years. Our report also notes that the CFPB has invested in technology that greatly enhances the efficiency of its FOIA program, and that CFPB’s FOIA Program encourages good communication practices with requesters.

To learn more about the CFPB program and our recommendations, please download the report. We will be following up with the CFPB in 120 days to learn what steps they have taken in response to our recommendations.

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OGIS Launches USPS FOIA Compliance Assessment

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United States Postal Service unveils a stamp honoring the Lewis and Clark expeditions. (NARA Identifier 6663490)

As part of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) agency assessment program, we reach out to requesters to ask them to let us know about their FOIA experiences with the agency. As you might remember, earlier this year we asked you all to share your experiences with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). We are happy to announce that we are putting the finishing touches on our CFPB assessment and are now turning our attention to the FOIA program at the United States Postal Service (USPS).

Like the other agencies that have participated in our agency assessment program, USPS volunteered to go through the process as part of their ongoing efforts to strengthen their FOIA program.

As you might be aware, OGIS agency assessments are a critical component of effort to review and make recommendations to improve agency compliance with FOIA. As part of an agency assessment, our Compliance Team analyzes several sources of information about the FOIA program, including any agency FOIA policies or Standard Operating Procedures, interviews with agency FOIA professionals, several years worth of annual FOIA reports to the Attorney General, FOIA litigation against the agency, and our mediation cases involving the agency to get a thorough understanding of the FOIA programs operations. Our Compliance Team then uses our knowledge of best practices and exposure to a wide range of agency practices to highlight any practices that are working well for the FOIA program and suggest how the FOIA program might address particular compliance challenges.

We hope you can help us improve our understanding of the USPS FOIA program by sharing your experiences. As the Federal FOIA Ombudsman, we have always believed good customer service is a critical component of a successful FOIA program, and there is no better way to understand the kind of customer service a FOIA program provides than hearing from the agency’s customers. Please send us your comments to ogis@nara.gov.

Posted in Review | 2 Comments

Reflections on the July 27 Chief FOIA Officer Council Meeting

Panel discussion during the Chief FOIA Officers Council Meeting on July 27, 2017 in the William G. McGowan Theater. Photo by Jeffrey Reed.

Those who follow the news on FOIA are likely already aware of last week’s Chief FOIA Officers Council meeting hosted by NARA in McGowan Theater. The meeting included a panel discussion of ways that agencies, OGIS and FOIA requesters can better work together. What follows are a few observations from the presentations from my fellow panelists:

  1. We are in a new era of FOIA: We heard from several panelists and members of the audience that FOIA’s star is rising—the number of requests to agencies across the government grows each year, the number of litigations have also grown significantly, and a new generation of journalists and researchers is harnessing the power of this important tool. Agencies need to be mindful of the expectations of these new requesters who are technology savvy and customer service focused.
  2. Relationships are everything: Agencies agree that repeat FOIA requesters are a valuable opportunity. Many requesters file a number of requests to a single agency over time, and treating such requesters as respected colleagues, and fostering productive and positive communications, can strengthen that relationship and lead to better requests down the line. Agencies are working hard to make themselves available to discuss requests and answer questions through FOIA requester service centers and FOIA Public Liaisons.
  3. Knowledge is power: Increased knowledge leads to better requests. FOIA requesters on the panel and in the audience described the types of information that helps them make better requests, including records management and destruction schedules, categories of records, and detailed information about the exemptions applied to withheld records.

We at OGIS hope that this will be the first of many constructive conversations between agencies and FOIA requesters. Thanks to those who presented and commented—we appreciate your great ideas.

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

Help the FOIA Advisory Committee Improve Proactive Disclosure!

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Have an idea for how to improve FOIA? Let the FOIA Advisory Committee! (NARA Identifier 521689)

A few weeks ago, we gave you an update on the number of agencies that have taken steps towards identifying records or categories of records that should be proactively disclosed to the public. This week, we are sharing a call from members of the 2016-2018 FOIA Advisory Committee for your ideas on what records agencies should routinely post on their website in a proactive manner.

Both the 2014- 2016 term and 2016-2018 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee created subcommittees to study issues related to proactive disclosures and to develop recommendations related to the topic. During the 2014-2016 term, the subcommittee conducted research into how agencies can use their FOIA logs to help determine the types of records that the public wants  disclosed, and examined the effect of accessibility requirements on the ability of agencies to post records released under FOIA. During the current term, the Proactive Disclosures and Accessibility Subcommittee has continued to explore these topics and has begun to develop specific recommendations for agencies.

One of the strategies under consideration by the Subcommittee is to develop a list of records – or categories of records – that may be good candidates for proactive disclosure. Agencies can then use this list as a guide as they examine what records they generate and make decisions about what  types or categories of records to post on their website. As part of this effort, the Subcommittee wants to hear from You!

Do you have ideas for documents, sets of documents, data, databases, or other records that agencies should endeavor to disclose proactively?  The Subcommittee would like to consider as wide a range of ideas as possible, and is gathering suggestions from both within and outside of government.  After gathering your feedback, the Subcommittee will consider all of the ideas generated and develop a consensus around a list of recommended targets for proactive disclosure.

Submit your ideas, regardless of scope or specificity, directly to foia-advisory-committee@nara.gov no later than August 7, 2017 to be a part of this exciting effort!

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Register Today to Share Your Thoughts with the Chief FOIA Officer Council

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Register today to share your ideas for improving the FOIA process! (NARA Identifier 534244)

The Chief FOIA Officers Council will be meeting on July 27, 2017 at 10 am to discuss strategies for improving customer service and improving coordination between agency FOIA Public Liaisons and our office. Be sure to RSVP today to join the audience in the William G. McGowan Theater and ensure you have an opportunity to share your views with the Council.

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 established the Chief FOIA Officers Council and charged OGIS and the Office of Information Policy (OIP) with acting as its co-chairs. The Council is intended to:

  • develop recommendations for increasing FOIA compliance and efficiency;
  • disseminate information about agency experiences, ideas, best practices, and innovative approaches related to FOIA;
  • identify, develop, and coordinate initiatives to increase transparency and compliance with FOIA; and
  • promote the development and use of common performance measures for agency compliance with FOIA.

 The draft agenda for the meeting includes welcoming remarks from the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, and an introduction to the topic of the meeting by OGIS’s Director, Alina M. Semo, and OIP’s Director, Melanie Pustay. The agenda also features a presentation on the duties of an agency FOIA Public Liaison, and a special panel discussion to kick-off dialogue about best practices for customer service and improved communication. The panel will include representatives from Cabinet-level and independent agency FOIA offices, the requester community, and OGIS’s Mediation Program.

If you cannot join the live audience, you can catch the livestream via the National Archives’ YouTube Channel. The livestream includes a chat function so that you can remotely ask questions or share your feedback; a member of OGIS’s staff will be monitoring the chat. There is also an opportunity to call into the meeting; for call-in information, please contact Amy Bennett at amy.bennett@nara.gov.

Posted in FOIA Public Liaisons, Mediation services, OGIS events | Leave a comment

FOIA Improvement: Proactive Disclosure

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Let us know what types of records you wold like to see agencies put online! (NARA Identifier 17444782)

On June 30th we passed the one-year anniversary of the enactment of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. Over the past year we have published blog posts suggesting ways agencies can implement some of the amendments, including the requirement to update FOIA regulations and notify requesters about our dispute resolution services.

Today, we want to provide an update on agencies’ efforts to put another one of the bill’s provisions into action: a requirement that agencies identify records that are of general interest or use to the public that are appropriate for public disclosure. According to data we collected through the Records Management Self-Assessment (2016 Final Report coming), 94 percent of the 209 offices that responded to the survey are meeting this requirement fully or to some extent. Only four percent of the respondents said their office is not identifying records that are of general interest or use to the public that are appropriate for public disclosure. The remainder of the responding offices (two percent) reported that they did not know if their office was meeting this requirement.

The term of art FOIA enthusiasts use for publishing agency information before anyone makes a FOIA request is “proactive disclosure,” and increasing proactive disclosure has been a hot topic in the FOIA community for a number of years (both the 2014-2016  and current term of the FOIA Advisory Committee include a subcommittee working on proactive disclosure). One of the reasons that proactive disclosure has been a popular topic in the FOIA world is the hope that agencies can reduce the number of FOIA requests they receive by making more proactive disclosures. Even if more proactive disclosures do not decrease the volume of FOIA requests, releasing records that are of interest to the public without waiting for a FOIA request helps ensure FOIA requests are better-targeted and advances open government.

Do you have any suggestions for types or categories of records that agencies should put online? Let us know in the comments section or on Twitter at @FOIA_Ombuds!

Posted in About FOIA, Open Government, Review | 2 Comments

Register to Attend the July 20th FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

FOIA Act Advisory Committee Meeting

Join the FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting at the National Archives in Washington, DC on July 20, 2017. Photo by Brogan Jackson.

The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee will reconvene on Thursday, July 20th at 10:00 am in the William G. McGowan Theater to continue its work to develop consensus solutions to some of the greatest challenges to FOIA administration and processes. If you have comments to share with the Committee, or would like to join the live audience, please register today.

During the current term, the FOIA Advisory Committee is addressing three important issues– proactive disclosures, searches, and efficiencies and resources. All of these topics reflect the profound changes that technology has made to the way that government operates, and the public’s expectations for openness.  They are all critical components to charting a course for how FOIA should operate in the future.

At the July 20th meeting, the co-chairs of each subcommittee will provide updates on their work. The agenda also includes an update on records management issues, including the management of email records, by the Chief Records Officer, Laurence Brewer. As we have written about before, there is a strong link between effective records management and FOIA programs.

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 always email any feedback you want to share with Committee members by emailing foia-advisory-committee@nara.gov.

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee | 1 Comment

We Are Looking for a Few Good Students!

VSFSAre you a student who is looking for an opportunity to gain valuable work experience and use your skills to make a real difference in the work of your government? Thanks to the State Department’s Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) program, there are hundreds of opportunities for you to participate from anywhere in the world!

Between July 2 – 26, the VSFS will be collecting applications from students for more than 500 projects covering a wide range of topics and calling for a diversity of skills. Among these opportunities are thirteen projects designed to help the National Archives carry out its mission. Do you have the skills to be the National Archives’ Digital Content Wizard or Websites Search Guru? Maybe you are interested in helping to Improve the Online Experience for Our Veterans or Help Genealogists Get the Most Out of the National Archives. The National Archives is also looking for someone who can assist us in translating American history from English to Spanish.

There is also an opportunity to work closely with the OGIS staff! We are managing a project aimed at helping the National Archives explain how our leadership on open government makes a difference.  For this project, we are looking for a student with social media expertise to develop a strategy to leverage the more than 130 National Archives social media accounts on 14 different platforms to help spread the word about #opengov at @USNatArchives. The campaign will culminate around Sunshine Week 2018. Learn more about the project and our goals here.

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Chief FOIA Officers Council Meeting Scheduled for July 27

Office of Government Information Services Sunshine Week Program

Join the audience for the July 27, 2017 meting of the Chief FOIA Officers Council.

OGIS and the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice are happy to announce that the next meeting of the Chief FOIA Officers Council will be held on Thursday, July 27th from 10 am to noon. You can register to join the audience in the William G. McGowan Theater beginning on July 26. You can also plan on watching the livestream via the National Archives’ YouTube Channel.

This meeting will be the third meeting of the Chief FOIA Officer’s Council, which was created by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.  The Chief FOIA Officers’ Council is intended to develop recommendations to increase agency compliance and efficiency and to share agency best practices and innovative approaches.

As we have reviewed the influx of requests for our assistance with a FOIA dispute since the passage of the FOIA Improvement Act, we have observed that in many instances requesters are confused about who they should contact for assistance, and they appear to not understand our role vis-à-vis the role of agency FOIA Public Liaisons. For example, we have had situations where requesters have contacted us instead of filing an appeal, or attempted to file an appeal with us rather than the agency. During this meeting of the Chief FOIA Officer Council, we will discuss strategies for improving customer service and improving coordination between agency FOIA Public Liaisons and OGIS.

Additional details about the Chief FOIA Officer’s Council are on OGIS’s website at https://archives.gov/ogis/about-ogis/Chief-FOIA-Officers-Council and OIP’s website at https://www.justice.gov/oip/chief-foia-officers-council. If you have any suggestions for topics to discuss or questions about the meeting, please feel free to contact us at ogis@nara.gov or on Twitter by tagging @FOIA_Ombuds.

Posted in Best practices, FOIA Public Liaisons, Open Government | 1 Comment