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.

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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

Dispute Resolution: It’s a Team Sport

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We are happy to have teammates that pitch in to help us resolve FOIA disputes. (NARA Identifier 26467081)

As we have discussed before, OGIS is not the only entity that requesters can go to for help with the FOIA process. In fact, agencies were directed to create FOIA Requester Service Centers and appoint FOIA Public Liaisons in December 2005 – about two years before passage of the bill that created our office.

Since we opened our doors to assist FOIA requesters in September 2009, we have worked closely with FOIA Public Liaisons to ensure our customers have the information they need to help resolve FOIA disputes. For example, we have turned to FOIA Public Liaisons to provide us with estimated dates of completion, information about their agencies’ record-keeping systems, and much more.

Now, thanks to a question that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Information Policy (OIP) included in the latest version of agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports, we have an even better understanding about how agency FOIA Public Liaisons assist the public with the process. For the 2017 report, DOJ asked all agencies that process a large (more than 1,000 requests) and medium (50-1,000 requests) volume of FOIA requests to provide an estimate of how often requesters sought assistance from that agency’s FOIA Public Liaison. Since the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 added a new requirement that OGIS report to Congress the number of times each agency engaged in dispute resolution with the assistance of the FOIA Public Liaison (see 5 U.S.C. § 552 (h)(4)(A)(ii)(II)), DOJ sent us a preview of the results earlier this year.

According to the data, agencies estimated that requesters sought assistance from agency FOIA Public Liaisons approximately 67,192 times in 2016. Given the number of agencies that process either large and/or medium volume of requests, this works out to an average of 1,018 times requesters contacted a FOIA Public Liaison per agency during the past year

We noted a large range in the numbers reported by each agency, with agencies that process fewer requests each year generally – and not surprisingly – reporting fewer contacts with that agency’s FOIA Public Liaison. We also noted that about 40% of the agencies that responded to the question reported that the FOIA Public Liaison, on average, is contacted less than one time per month.

We look forward to continuing to work with DOJ to better understand the impact of agency FOIA Public Liaisons on the process. We also look forward to learning from Federal agencies if the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 has had a similar effect on their FOIA Public Liaisons as it has had on OGIS’s workload.

We are always looking to hear from you about how to make the FOIA process work better for both agencies and requesters. If you have any suggestions for how we can improve our coordination with FOIA Public Liaisons, please let us know in the comments!

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An Update on Our Dispute Resolution Program

We ask for your patience. We will respond to your request for assistance as quickly as possible. (NARA Identifier 532203)

We’ve written before about the profound impact the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 has had on our workload, and that impact has only continued to grow.  Demand for our services has roughly quadrupled since the passage of the bill, while at the same time there are two open positions on the mediation team that we have been unable to fill. So how is our small staff approaching this big task, and what can our customers do to receive a response more quickly?

1. Submit materials: Reviewing the correspondence related to a FOIA dispute (such as the request, the agency’s response, the administrative appeal and the agency’s response to the appeal – if they exist) is an important part of the OGIS dispute resolution process, and we need those materials to open a case. Providing them with your initial submission allows us to open a case for you immediately. Additionally, we do our best to prioritize cases for which timeliness—such as an appeal deadline—is a factor.

2. Be patient: Delays are an inevitable part of the FOIA process. Unfortunately, delays have also become part of OGIS’s process as our caseload has grown and our staff has shrunk. We work hard to carefully analyze every request for our assistance and provide a thoughtful response, but the more involved your case is the longer the OGIS’s process will take.

Many agency FOIA offices organize records requests into queues based on complexity, and we take the same approach with requests for assistance. Cases in OGIS’s simple queue are relatively straightforward—obtaining the status of delayed FOIA requests, providing information about the FOIA process, et cetera—while cases in the complex queue require more thought, analysis, and discussion with both the agency and you the requester. If your case in in the complex queue, we will send you a case number; knowing your number will help us communicate about your case more efficiently.

3. Communicate: We hear regularly from people who have asked for our assistance and want to know the status of a case. If you would like to know the status of your case, including whether your pending case has been assigned to an OGIS facilitator, please email us at ogis@nara.gov.

We hope that this provides you with some insight about how our process works. As always, feel free to contact us if you have any questions or feedback.

Posted in About OGIS, Customer service | 1 Comment

DHS Provides New Insight into FOIA Processing

DHS StatsAs you might have heard, the Federal government received a record-breaking number of FOIA requests in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 – 788,769 requests. Did you know, though, that one of the more than 100 Federal agencies and departments that process FOIA requests accounts for almost 40 percent of that total? In FY 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) received 325,780 requests.

In addition to receiving an overwhelming amount of the FOIA requests sent to the Federal government, during FY 2016 DHS also handled about 40 percent of the requests processed by the federal government (DHS processed 310,549 of the 759,842 requests processed in FY 2016). DHS’s backlog – 46,788 – also accounts for about 40 percent of the FY 16 Federal government backlog.

DHS is now providing additional insight into the government’s FOIA operations by posting statistics updated monthly on their FOIA web page. In addition to providing information about the number of requests that DHS receives, processes, and has in its backlog during the previous month, DHS is also posting information about the number of pages released during the current Fiscal Year. Understanding the number of pages the FOIA program released improves our understanding of the amount of work the agency needed to do to process cases and of the amount of information that is being released under FOIA. In addition to releasing the total number of pages released during the Fiscal Year, DHS is taking the extra step of specifying the number of records released through the administrative appeal process, and the number of records released as a result of litigation: according to the statistics DHS posted for April 2017, the number of records released through litigation (82,000) represents about one half of one percent of the total number of records released in FY 2017 (16 million).

Do you have any suggestions for data points about the FOIA process that agencies can post on their web pages? Let us know in the comments!

Posted in About FOIA, Best practices, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Help Us Keep Improving Our Website!

websitescreenshotWe hope you like the new look and feel of our updated website (do not worry if you do not see the updated version yet, it might take some time for the changes to roll out)! Over the past few weeks we have used this blog to give you a preview of the new site and a guide to finding our content.

As a reminder, this update includes a change to our website’s URL. You can now find our homepage at www.archives.gov/ogis. We expect that many of our pages will automatically re-direct to the updated address. If a bookmark for one of our pages no longer works, you can find most of the content from our old website by simply moving the “ogis” from the front of the URL to between backslashes and deleting “htm” from the end of the URL.

For example:

One of the most exciting aspects of this website update is that our content is now in Drupal, an open source content management system that makes our website responsive to mobile devices. Using Drupal also makes it easier for the National Archives staff to update our content.

Now we want your help to continue to improve our website! As we learn more about Drupal, we plan to integrate other features into our website and improve our content’s organization. If you have any suggestions, please let us know by emailing ogis@nara.gov or contacting us on Twitter at @FOIA_Ombuds.

Posted in About OGIS | 1 Comment