OGIS Embraces Transparency

OGIS embraces transparency and proactive disclosures. (NARA Identifier 7140623)

OGIS embraces transparency and proactive disclosures. (NARA Identifier 7140623)

Conventional wisdom holds that one strategy for improving the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process is to routinely publish agency records that might be of interest to the public. The term of art FOIA enthusiasts use for publishing agency information before anyone makes a FOIA request is proactive disclosure.

We at OGIS make it a priority to help the public better understand our work by making certain types of information available. Here is a brief guide to some proactive disclosures you can find on our website:

  • Annual Reports –Our Annual Reports, published since 2010, include information about the volume and types of mediation cases we handled during the previous fiscal year, findings of our compliance program, and our outreach efforts.
  • Director’s Calendar – We periodically publish our director’s calendar to help the public better understand our day-to-day operations and priorities.
  • Congressional Testimony – We make all of our congressional testimony available on a single page, helping the public understand what we are saying to Congress.
  • Statements and Executive Correspondence– We publish many of the official letters we send to other agencies so that the public can better understand our relationship with other agencies. We recently added a page linking to all of our correspondence with agencies about our request that agencies add a routine use to their Privacy Act/ FOIA system of records. The routine-use procedure makes it easier for agencies and OGIS to discuss FOIA requests that are the subject of requests for OGIS assistance.
  • OGIS Activities Calendar – We publish and update a calendar of our planned activities for the fiscal year.
  • Final Response Letters to Customers – We publish these letters to help the public better understand the types of cases OGIS assists with and the results. You can also download the posted letters by fiscal year.
  • Mediation Program Performance Statistics – Each quarter, we publish the status and accomplishments of our mediation program. You can also download all of the metrics.
Posted in About OGIS, Open Government | Leave a comment

The ABC’s of OGIS Training

Lady Bird Johnson practices her active listening skills while visiting school children. (NARA Identifier 2803425)

Lady Bird Johnson practices her active listening skills while visiting school children. (NARA Identifier 2803425)

As summer winds down and pictures of kids on their first day of school fill up our social media feeds, we thought it might be a good time for a pop quiz on OGIS’s training program. Test your knowledge with the true/false statements below.

Statement 1: OGIS recently launched its training program.

Answer 1: False. OGIS has provided training in Dispute Resolution for FOIA Professionals since March 2010. Since its launch, more than 700 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) professionals have attended this training.

Statement 2: You should sign up for OGIS’s dispute resolution skills training session only if you are a FOIA Public Liaison.

Answer 2: False. Training on dispute resolution skills is helpful for all FOIA professionals who wish to improve customer service and communicate with FOIA requesters or colleagues more effectively.

Statement 3: OGIS can provide agency-specific training.

Answer 3: True. OGIS has provided training on dispute resolution skills to several agencies—sometimes as a part of a FOIA training conference or as an agency specific training. If you would like to talk to us more about how we can provide training for your staff, please email us.

Statement 4: I can reserve a seat for OGIS’s next training session.

Answer 4: False. Reservations for our training sessions are on a first-come, first-served basis. We publish an activities calendar including our training sessions at the beginning of each Fiscal Year. The best way to know when reservations are open for our next session is to follow this blog (we add new posts each Wednesday), or follow us on Twitter (@FOIA_Ombuds). Please be advised that training sessions generally fill up within a few hours of our announcement.

Statement 5: OGIS’s goal is to make participants into certified mediators.

Answer 5: False. Participants will not be certified mediators by the end of the program. However, participants will be exposed to many of the skills that are an important part of dispute resolution, including active listening. Participants will also have an opportunity to put their new skills to the test during role playing exercises (which is more fun than it sounds, honest)!

Posted in About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Customer service, Training | Leave a comment

Improvements to TSA FOIA Program

TSA's response to our follow up questionnaire describes a number of positive steps to improve its FOIA program. (NARA ID 5699547)

TSA’s response to our follow up questionnaire describes a number of positive steps to improve its FOIA program. (NARA ID 5699547)

Last month we received an update from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regarding changes it has made to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program since we issued our assessment of the program earlier this year. We are happy to hear that TSA has taken a number of positive steps in response to our recommendations. As a result of these changes, TSA reports that it has reduced its backlog, increased the timeliness of its responses, and improved its communication with requesters.

TSA reported establishing performance metrics for FOIA analysts and case closure goals for the office resulting in reducing its backlog in the four months since the metrics were put into place. TSA also reported that it is creating standard operating procedures that will explain the entire TSA FOIA process and improve coordination with the TSA office that reviews Sensitive Security Information (SSI).

Additionally, TSA reported changes to improve the FOIA program’s communication with requesters, including following current guidance from the Department of Justice regarding the use of still interested letters to administratively close requests and providing requesters with examples of the types of information usually withheld in its checklist of exemptions cited. TSA also reported that it plans to add a metric to its performance plans that requires FOIA analysts to proactively communicate with requesters.

You can find TSA’s response and all of our assessment reports and follow up questionnaires on our Agency Compliance Reports page. To stay current on our compliance program, please keep an eye on the page and follow us on Twitter!

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Upcoming Training Opportunity for FOIA Professionals

Agencies are open for business and ready to assist requesters! (NARA Identifier 2128042)

Agencies are open for business and ready to assist requesters! (NARA Identifier 2128042)

FOIA Public Liaisons and the professionals who staff FOIA requester service centers play a key role in the FOIA process—they provide valuable assistance with a process that can confuse requesters. The recently passed FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 expands the role that these professionals play, requiring agencies to notify requesters about FOIA Public Liaisons and requester service centers more frequently and earlier in the process. So how can agencies continue to provide great customer service through their Public Liaisons and requester service centers despite an increase in demand?

On Monday, August 15, 2016, OGIS and the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP) will present a training session for all FOIA Public Liaisons and FOIA Requester Service Center staff. We will clarify roles and responsibilities, share customer service and dispute resolution tips, and discuss best practices. Please register and join us!

FOIA Public Liaison and FOIA Requester Service Center Training
Monday, August 15, 2016 – 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Department of Justice Conference Center
145 N Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002

If you are interested in attending, please email your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “FOIA Public Liaison & FOIA Requester Service Center Training.” If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

If you are unable to attend the August 15 session—or you work outside of the Washington, D.C. area—fear not! We plan to review the presentation material by teleconference in the coming weeks. If you are interested in being a part of this teleconference, please send an email to DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov  with the subject line “FOIA Public Liaison & FOIA Requester Service Center Training – Teleconference.”

Posted in Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, Customer service, Training | Leave a comment

OGIS Releases Assessment of Secret Service FOIA Program

Our report includes observations and recommendations for the United States Secret Service's FOIA program. (NARA identifier 6520033)

Our compliance assessment includes observations and recommendations for the United States Secret Service’s FOIA program. (NARA identifier 6520033)

Today we are releasing a report on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program at the United States Secret Service (USSS), the fifth in our series of assessments of FOIA programs at components of the Department of Homeland Security. Like other OGIS reports on agency FOIA program assessments, the report includes findings and recommendations about the USSS FOIA Program.

USSS’s FOIA Program is centralized; program offices search for responsive records and the FOIA office processes them and responds to the requester. USSS accepts requests by mail, email, online using the DHS online submission form, or through the DHS FOIA app by mobile phone.

Between Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 and FY 2015, the USSS FOIA Program received an average of almost 1,300 requests per year, ranging from a low of 897 in FY 2011 to a high of 1,595 in FY 2012. From FY 2009 to FY 2015, the backlog at USSS increased by almost 86 percent from 426 requests to 791 requests. During the same period, the number of requests USSS received rose by about 52 percent and the number of requests processed grew by about 29 percent. USSS’s FOIA staff also grew by almost 38 percent between FY 2009 and FY 2015.

Among our recommendations are that USSS:

  • Adopt management controls and continue working towards using metrics in employee performance goals;
  • Create a formal data-driven backlog reduction plan;
  • Ensure the FOIA branch has sufficient IT support; and
  • Regularly communicate with requesters about the status of requests, particularly regarding the oldest cases.

We will follow up with USSS in 120 days to learn what actions it has taken to address our findings and recommendations.

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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!

Posted in About FOIA, Open Government | 1 Comment

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.

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

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.

Posted in About FOIA, About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Review | 1 Comment