Introducing FOIA to a New Generation of Requesters

teens  23932367

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t wait to hear from you!

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FOIA Improvement: Making It Easier to Help FOIA Requesters

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

Keep up with our correspondence with agencies about making it easier for us to help requesters. (NARA Identifier 192672)

Keep up with our correspondence with agencies about making it easier for us to help requesters. (NARA Identifier 192672)

As we shared with you last week, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 significantly expands OGIS’s involvement in the FOIA process. Prior to the change in the law, agencies were encouraged to alert requesters to our ability to mediate FOIA disputes in final letters responding to an appeal; now, agencies are required to let requesters know about their right to seek assistance from the agency’s FOIA Public Liaison or OGIS at several points in the FOIA process.

In anticipation of our expanded role in the FOIA process, we recently encouraged agencies to make it easier for requesters to ask for our assistance. Because FOIA case files generally include personally identifiable information that is protected by the Privacy Act of 1974 (PA), an agency is not allowed to routinely share a FOIA file with another agency unless it obtains the requester’s consent for a file to be shared or notifies the public by updating its PA Systems of Records Notice (SORN) to include routine-use language for OGIS.  If an agency has not published a Privacy Act SORN letting the public know that its files might be shared with us, we must first obtain written authorization from the requester before we can discuss his or her request with the agency.

We have contacted a number of departments and agencies to ask that they reduce the burden on requesters seeking our assistance by amending their FOIA/PA SORN to include a routine use for OGIS. We’ve made progress, and are happy to say that 13 Cabinet-level departments and 11 agencies (including the Social Services Administration which published its notice earlier today) have revised their SORNs to include this routine use. You can find a list of all of the departments and agencies that have revised their FOIA/PA SORNs and included a routine use for OGIS here: https://ogis.archives.gov/mediation-program/request-assistance/routine-uses.htm

We kicked our efforts to encourage other agencies to make it easier for requesters to ask for our help into a higher gear this summer. Starting in May, we sent a letter to agencies we had previously contacted but had not yet acted to re-iterate our request to update their FOIA/PA SORN and to respond to our request within the next month. In addition to re-contacting agencies we had previously asked to update their SORN, we also contacted agencies that processed at least 100 requests in the prior year that had not previously heard from us about the Privacy Act SORN issue. We also committed to posting all of our letters we issued to the agencies on this topic and any agency’s response on our website.

As you can see from our website, several additional agencies have already assured us that they plan to make it easier for requesters to ask for our help. We look forward to adding these agencies to the list of agencies that do not require requesters to authorize us to discuss their requests with the agency, and will continue to follow up with agencies and post any updates to our website.

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FOIA Improvement: Informing Requesters of OGIS Services

Note: Last week President Obama signed into law the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, locking many of the Administration’s openness policies and initiatives into the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), including advancing open government and highlighting the importance of OGIS to the FOIA process. This blog post is the first of an occasional series in which we will update you on our plans to carry out the law, and any new policies or processes we put in place.

The recently signed FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 significantly expands the role of OGIS and FOIA Public Liaisons (FPLs) by requiring that agencies inform requesters of our availability to help resolve disputes at several points during the FOIA process. For instance, FOIA now requires that when “unusual circumstances” prevent an agency from processing a request within FOIA’s time limit, the agency must notify the requester of the availability of OGIS and the FPL to assist. The law also requires that agencies inform requesters of the availability of OGIS and FPLs to help resolve disputes if the agency makes an adverse determination during its initial processing of the request.

To assist agencies in complying with the law, we have developed the following language to use in agency response letters:

Suggested language for initial determination letters:

You have the right to file an administrative appeal within 90 days of the date of this letter. By filing an appeal, you preserve your rights under FOIA and give the agency a chance to review and reconsider your request and the agency’s decision.

If you would like to discuss our response before filing an appeal to attempt to resolve your dispute without going through the appeals process, you may contact our FOIA Public Liaison [NAME] for assistance at:

[MAILING ADDRESS]
[TELEPHONE NUMBER]
[EMAIL ADDRESS]

If you are unable to resolve your FOIA dispute through our FOIA Public Liaison, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the Federal FOIA Ombudsman’s office, offers mediation services to help resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and Federal agencies. The contact information for OGIS is:

Office of Government Information Services
National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road–OGIS
College Park, MD 20740-6001
ogis@nara.gov
ogis.archives.gov
202-741-5770
877-684-6448

Suggested language for appeal response letters:

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the Federal FOIA Ombudsman, offers mediation services to resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and Federal agencies as a non-exclusive alternative to litigation. Using OGIS services does not affect your right to pursue litigation. You may contact OGIS in any of the following ways:

Office of Government Information Services
National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road–OGIS
College Park, MD 20740-6001
ogis@nara.gov
ogis.archives.gov
202-741-5770
1-877-684-6448

Suggested language for requests in which unusual circumstances allow for 10 additional working days to respond:

If you dispute this response you may contact our FOIA Public Liaison [NAME] to discuss your request at:

[MAILING ADDRESS]
[TELEPHONE NUMBER]
[EMAIL ADDRESS]

You may also wish to contact the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the Federal FOIA Ombudsman’s office, which offers mediation services to help resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and Federal agencies. The contact information for OGIS is:

Office of Government Information Services
National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road–OGIS
College Park, MD 20740-6001
ogis@nara.gov
ogis.archives.gov
202-741-5770
877-684-6448

As noted previously, we will be sure to update you on any new policies or procedures we adopt as we implement the changes to FOIA. If you have any questions, or would like to know more about what we do, please check out our Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Report, or follow us on Twitter.

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FOIA Advisory Committee Term to Kick Off on July 21

Join us on July 21, 2016 to kick off the 2016-2018 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee. (NARA Identifier 6770092)

Join us on July 21, 2016 to kick off the 2016-2018 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee. (NARA Identifier 6770092)

We are very happy to announce that the list of members for the 2016-2018 term or the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee is now available on our website. In even more exciting news, the Committee will be convening for its first meeting on Thursday, July 21st in the William G. McGowan Theater.

For those of you who are not familiar with the FOIA Advisory Committee, the National Archives launched the effort in 2014 to bring together requesters and agency FOIA professionals to develop recommendations for improving the administration of FOIA. At the final meeting of its first term, the Committee presented a unanimously supported recommendation to improve FOIA’s fee system. OGIS chairs the Committee, and OGIS’s staff provides the Committee with administrative support.

As we shared a few weeks ago, the second term offers an opportunity for the Committee members to look at broader issues related to FOIA and work to address some of the most difficult challenges, such as the increasing volume of electronic records and the need for modern technology in FOIA offices. If you are in the DC area and want to join us for the Committee’s first meeting, please RSVP today. People outside the DC area will also be able to watch the event via livestream: keep an eye on the Committee’s meetings webpage and follow us on Twitter for updates on how to watch the event live.

If you have any comments for the Committee, don’t hesitate to let us know. During this term, we will also explore how we can use technology to make it easier for members of the public to provide input to the Committee.

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State Department Takes Steps to Improve Use of Still Interested Letters

The State Department recently let us know about steps it has taken to bring its use of still interested letters in line with current guidance and improve its relationship with requesters. (NARA identifier 23361923)

The State Department recently let us know about steps it has taken to bring its use of still interested letters in line with current guidance and improve its relationship with requesters. (NARA identifier 23361923)

Here’s a bit of good news for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters at the State Department: late last week we received a letter letting us know about the steps the agency has taken to bring its use of still interested letters to close FOIA requests in line with guidance from the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice.

As we have previously explained, still interested letters are a source of frustration for requesters. We described how OIP’s most recent guidance on the use of the letters addressed many of the requester’s frustrations, and recommended steps that an agency should take to make sure that its actions are in line with OIP’s policy. Finally, we recommended that OGIS continue to monitor how agencies use these letters, and provide agency officials feedback on their use.

In late May we contacted the State Department’s Chief FOIA Officer, Joyce Barr, to discuss still interested inquiries that we learned were recently sent out by the State Department; those letters gave requesters far fewer days to respond that the 30 working day deadline recommended in OIP’s guidance. Requesters express particular aggravation when agencies give them only a few days to respond before administratively closing a request – particularly when the request has been pending at the agency for months or even years without a response.

According to the response from Ms. Barr, the State Department has since updated its procedures and guidance and senior management of the State Department’s FOIA Program have informed FOIA staff that requesters should be given at least 45 days to respond to still interested inquiries. The State Department also sent written guidance to all FOIA employees who draft still interested letters; OGIS recommends the development and distribution of written guidance on the use of still interested letters.

We are happy to hear about the State Department’s actions and hope that it will help improve communication between the agency and its requesters!

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Gearing Up for the 2016-2018 Term of the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee

Members of the first term of the FOIA Advisory Committee with David S. Ferriero (center), Archivist of the United States. in Washington, DC on April 19, 2016. NARA photo by Jeffrey Reed.

If you’re a frequent visitor to our website (and we hope you are), you might have noticed we’ve added a section for news and materials related to the 2016-2018 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee. The National Archives and Records Administration created the Committee in 2014 to bring together requesters and agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) professionals to work to improve the administration of FOIA. OGIS provides leadership and administrative support to the Committee.

The first term of the FOIA Advisory Committee ended on a high note: Committee members presented Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero with a recommendation to improve the FOIA process. This recommendation—that the Office of Management and Budget update its 1987 fee guidance to reduce confusion and and improve consistency in how the law is interpreted by agencies—won   unanimous support from the Committee on April 19, 2016.

On May 20, 2016, the Archivist renewed the Committee’s charter in recognition of Its unique role in bringing together agencies and requesters to consider ways to modernize the administration of FOIA. We are particularly excited about this term of the Committee because it presents an opportunity for the Committee members to look more broadly at the challenges that agency FOIA programs are expected to face with an ever increasing volume of electronic records.

In the coming weeks, we will update the FOIA Advisory Committee’s new web page to include information about the individuals the Archivist appointed to the Committee, and the Committee’s meeting schedule. If you have any comments for the Committee to consider, please email them to foia-advisory-committee@nara.gov.

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OGIS Seeks Input on Immigration and Customs Enforcement FOIA Program

OGIS wants to hear about your FOIA experience with Immigration and Customs Enforcement! (NARA Identification Number 1633445)

OGIS wants to hear about your FOIA experience with Immigration and Customs Enforcement! (NARA Identification Number 1633445)

Have you made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)? Our Compliance Team wants to hear about your experience.

Our compliance review process includes several methods to better understand how an agency FOIA program operates and what kind of challenges or opportunities it faces. In addition to interviewing the FOIA program’s management and surveying the program’s FOIA staff, we also review the requests we have received to mediate FOIA disputes with the agency, review data from Annual FOIA Reports and FOIA litigation against the agency to identify trends, and review a statistically significant sample of the agency’s FOIA case files from the previous fiscal year.  We analyze the information to evaluate the agency’s compliance with the statute, highlight best practices, and make recommendations to improve the FOIA program (you can see all of our published assessments and recommendations here). We decided to expand our reach to FOIA requesters as part of our compliance review process because we started hearing from requesters after our assessments were complete.

As the Federal FOIA Ombudsman, we have always believed good customer service is a critical component of a successful FOIA program. In order to better understand the kind of customer service the agency provides, we think it is important to hear from the agency’s customers. If you have filed a FOIA request with ICE and would like to tell us about your experience, please email ogis@nara.gov.

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More Chances to Wish FOIA A Happy Birthday!

If you missed seeing the original Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed by President Lyndon Johnson that was on display during our Sunshine Week Event, the National Archives is giving you another opportunity to wish the law a happy 50th birthday in person!

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and David S. Ferriero (right), Archivist of the United States, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act at the 2016 Sunshine Week program, a national initiative to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2016. NARA photo by Jeffrey Reed.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and David S. Ferriero (right), Archivist of the United States, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act at the 2016 Sunshine Week program, a national initiative to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2016. NARA photo by Jeffrey Reed.

We are happy to announce that between June 15 and September 14, 2016, the FOIA will be on display in the National Archives’ permanent exhibition “Records of Rights” in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Members of the public can drop by during the Museum’s operating hours to view the exhibit for free.

Members of the press will have a special opportunity to photograph or videotape the document before it is placed on display. This informal press-only event will be on Monday June 13 in the National Archives’ Conservation Lab. See the press release for additional information.

FOIA has changed a great deal over the past 50 years. In addition to the major updates Congress has given the law about once every 10 years, Court rulings—including more than 20 Supreme Court decisions—have continually affected how agencies administer FOIA.

As most of you likely know, OGIS is one of the newer features of FOIA: in October 2014, the Newseum hosted an event marking the 5th anniversary of our office. As OGIS’s former Director James Holzer pointed out during his address at the 2016 National Freedom of Information Day Celebration, OGIS is in its best position yet to act as a change agent in the administration of FOIA; we have helped mediate FOIA disputes between Federal agencies and requesters in all 50 states and in 22 foreign countries, and we have a robust FOIA compliance program in place that provides tailored recommendations on how to improve an agency’s FOIA program.

As we honor FOIA’s 50th birthday, we hope you will also all join us in looking forward to its next 50 years!

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June 16 Requester Roundtable on FOIA Websites

We hope you can join us on June 16 to share your thoughts about improving agenc

We hope you can join us on June 16 to share your thoughts about improving agency FOIA Websites (NARA Identifier 23869179)

Have you ever spent far too long searching for something on an agency’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) website or thought to yourself, “there are certain types of information that every agency should include on its FOIA website”? If so, mark your calendars and reserve your seat for the June 16, 2016 Requester Roundtable on FOIA Websites. We are hosting the discussion with the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice.

Improving agency FOIA websites is one of several FOIA modernization commitments made by the U.S. Government as part of the Third United States Open Government National Action Plan. The goal of the upcoming meeting is to gather feedback from members of the public and agency personnel about best practices for agency FOIA websites. The feedback will help us as we work with OIP to develop guidance and create best practices for agency FOIA websites.

Space for this meeting is limited, so registration is required. To register to attend, please email your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “June Requester Roundtable.”

Posted in Best practices, OGIS events, Requester Roundtable | 1 Comment

An Easy Way to Help Us Resolve FOIA Disputes

In order to assist some FOIA requesters, we need their signature. (NARA Identifier 7666252)

In order to assist some FOIA requesters, we need their signature. (NARA Identifier 7666252)

We recently posted a list of agencies that have taken a step that makes it easier for us to resolve Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disputes. These agencies have a Privacy Act “routine use” that allows the agency to share with OGIS information about FOIA request and appeal files.

Agencies store FOIA case files in systems of records that are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974, which usually means that the agency needs written consent from the requester before it can discuss or share information in FOIA files with another government agency such as OGIS. (FOIA requesters who have asked for our assistance might be familiar with the privacy consent statement that we ask them to sign before we open a case). However, if a government agency (such as OGIS) routinely needs access to another agency’s files, the agency that controls the records can include a “routine use” that allows OGIS access to those files in its FOIA/Privacy Act System of Records.

Several years ago, OGIS worked with the Department of Justice to develop a model routine use that agencies can use for this purpose:

To the National Archives and Records Administration, Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), to the extent necessary to fulfill its responsibilities in 5 U.S.C. § 552(h), to review administrative agency policies, procedures and compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and to facilitate OGIS’ offering of mediation services to resolve disputes between persons making FOIA requests and administrative agencies.

Twelve of the 15 Cabinet-level Departments and eight other agencies have amended their FOIA/ Privacy Act System of Records so that it includes the routine use mentioned above, allowing OGIS and the agencies to share information from FOIA case files. In the past two years, we have contacted many of those agencies that have not yet amended their System of Records to include a routine use for OGIS to ask that they do so, and in the coming weeks, we will contact them again. You can see all of the agencies we have contacted thus far, the dates of contact, and the response—if any—from each agency here.

While contacting these agencies is a significant effort for our small staff, we have found that the inclusion of a routine use for OGIS makes it significantly easier for us to do our work. We hope that these lists provide a little more insight into how we work, and the steps we are taking to make sure that we can assist the FOIA community—both requesters and agencies.

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