Join us Online for Today’s Chief FOIA Officers Council Meeting

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Recent changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) landscape and an update on FOIA and technology will be discussed at the August 5, 2019 public meeting of the Chief FOIA Officers Council, beginning at 10:00 a.m. EDT. You may join us online via the National Archives YouTube channel.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media has implications for how some agencies apply FOIA Exemption 4 to confidential information. Bobak Talebian from the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP) will discuss this decision with members of the Council.

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 (H.R. 4174) requires Federal agencies to make data publicly available by default in a secure manner. The Office of Management and Budget’s Kirsten Moncada will discuss the impact of this legislation on agency FOIA programs.

Michael Sarich of the Veterans Health Administration and Eric Stein of the State Department, co-chairmen of the Council’s Technology Subcommittee, will discuss the group’s work since forming in September 2018.

The directors of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) and OIP co-chair the Council, which must meet publicly at least once a year in accordance with FOIA. The statute mandates that the Council develop recommendations for increasing FOIA compliance and efficiency; share best practices and innovative approaches; and work on initiatives to increase transparency and FOIA compliance.

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Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Abioye Mosheim  

Abi Mosheim Staff Photo 2018Today we present an interview with Abioye Mosheim, Chief FOIA Officer and Assistant General Counsel for FOIA, Privacy and Records at the Consumer Product Safety Commission and a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee. Over the next year, we will share our interviews with other members of the Advisory Committee so that you can get to know them better.

Why did you seek to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee?

First and foremost I wanted to solve FOIA problems related to time and volume. I also wanted to share my experiences in processing and managing the FOIA at two small agencies with very different challenges—the Copyright Office and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And I wanted to learn more from fellow FOIA professionals [and] gain knowledge that I could take back to my agency and put to good use.

What do you hope to accomplish?

I hope to work with FOIA colleagues to solve problems related to the tension between the 20-day statutory deadline and the voluminous records that must be reviewed and processed in response to most requests. If we can come up with proposed solutions that benefit the rest of the FOIA community, I will be happy.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge to agencies is having enough resources to respond to FOIA requests within the 20-day statutory timeframe. Those problems [include] having enough staff to both process requests and expertly advise requesters regarding the status and substance of their requests; not having enough money to retain good, dedicated staff; and not having enough money to purchase technology that can quickly and comprehensively search for, review and redact voluminous amounts of records.

Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.

One of my favorite FOIA moments was geeking out with colleagues over how to respond to a request that involved congressional records. We argued for about an hour over our interpretations of the case law and the best way to process the request. It was the most passionate FOIA discussion I have had to date and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A FOIA request that challenges you and makes you grow in your understanding of the law is a gift.

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Upcoming USCIS Webinar

DF-ST-99-05341Thinking about FOIA beyond its 53rd birthday on July 4th? Interested in how to submit and track FOIA and Privacy Act requests and receive documents digitally from U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)? The agency will demonstrate the system and answer the public’s questions during  an hour-long webinar at 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday July 9th.

The system, known as the FOIA Immigration Records System, or FIRST, allows FOIA requesters to submit online requests for their own records. USCIS’s transition to FIRST has been in the works for several years to replace a system that it began using in 1999. In an OGIS assessment of the USCIS FOIA program, published in February 2018, we noted that several features and functions of the FIRST system could further improve efficiency and customer service.  OGIS also recommended that USCIS continue to explore how technology can further improve the processing of Alien Files (A-Files), the official government record for all immigration and naturalization records created or consolidated since April 1, 1944, and which are not static records.

USCIS receives and processes the largest number of FOIA requests government-wide—processing more than 186,000 requests in Fiscal Year 2018. The vast majority of those requesters seek access to A-Files.  Soon, USCIS online account holders can make online requests on behalf of another person. Later this year, they can make online requests for non-A-File material such as policies or communications.

To join the event:

Webinar link

Call-in number: (888) 324-8137

Participant passcode: 6881475

To request a disability accommodation, please email public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov by 10 a.m. EDT Monday July 8, 2019.

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It’s a Wrap: OGIS’s Open Meeting

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If you missed the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) annual meeting on June 14, 2019, it is not too late to listen in on the conversation—we invite you to watch the meeting on the National Archives YouTube channel.

The Freedom of Information Act directs OGIS to host an annual meeting to inform the public about our work. We see this as a valuable opportunity to consider our progress as the FOIA Ombudsman. Archivist of the U.S. David S. Ferriero opened this year’s meeting with comments about the importance of FOIA and OGIS’s work. OGIS Director Alina M. Semo then discussed OGIS’s accomplishments as described in OGIS’s 2019 Report for FY 2018. Finally, members of OGIS’s staff shared an informal conversation about the Office’s challenges and achievements.

Even though the meeting—and the public comment period—are over, we would still love to hear from you. If you have thoughts about OGIS’s work, please feel free to get in touch with us at ogisopenmeeting@nara.gov.

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Join Us for Our Annual Open Meeting!

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Got a question for the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)? Or do you want to hear more about our work as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Ombudsman over the past year? If so, please join us for the OGIS annual open meeting on Friday, June 14, 2019, in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The meeting is from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

OGIS Director Alina M. Semo will discuss OGIS’s accomplishments over the last fiscal year (FY), as described in OGIS’s 2019 Report for FY 2018. Specifically, attendees will learn about the five assessments OGIS published in FY 2018 as part of our compliance program, our dispute resolution work, the work of the FOIA Advisory Committee, and OGIS’s other outreach efforts.

The open meeting provides a valuable opportunity for OGIS’s stakeholders to share statements and provide comments to OGIS regarding its work. This year, as OGIS celebrates its 10th anniversary since opening our doors to the public (Fall 2009), we also will field general pre-submitted questions regarding our work, as well as cover some frequently asked questions. Whether you are joining us in person or via our livestream, we ask that you submit questions by email (ogisopenmeeting@nara.gov) no later than June 12th. Please note that questions should be general in nature as they relate to OGIS’s programs and activities; we cannot address concerns about individual FOIA requests or OGIS cases in this forum.

If you are interested in attending the June 14, 2019 open meeting in person, please register online. You will go through security screening when you enter the building. For those outside the DC area, the meeting will be live-streamed on the National Archives YouTube channel. The live stream will include a captioning option, and we will monitor the comments section of the live stream for additional comments and questions.

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Join Us for the Next FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting!

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We often think of agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as a tool for journalists and those with commercial interests in government records, but in reality, those seeking records about themselves vastly outnumber commercial requesters at some agencies. The FOIA Advisory Committee will explore the issue of how requests from individuals seeking records about themselves dominate some FOIA programs at its next meeting on June 6, 2019, in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The meeting is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Professor Margaret B. Kwoka of the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver will present her research, published in June 2018 in the Yale Law Journal, on “First-Person FOIA.” Also on the agenda are updates from the Committee’s three subcommittees— Records Management, Time/Volume, and Vision—and an update on the status of past recommendations from the two previous terms of the FOIA Advisory Committee. A public comment period concludes the meeting.

The meeting is the fourth of the 2018-2020 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee, which is tasked with studying FOIA across the government, soliciting public comments, and recommending improvements to the Archivist of the United States.

Professor Kwoka was a member of the 2016-2018 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee and presented to the 2014-2016 term on her research, “FOIA, Inc.,”  published in the Duke Law Journal in 2016. That research documented how corporations use FOIA to make profits and potentially crowd out journalists and other government watchdogs from the FOIA process.

If you are interested in attending the June 6, 2019, meeting, please register online. You will go through security screening when you enter the building.

We hope to see you there. For those outside the DC area, the meeting will be live-streamed on the National Archives YouTube channel.

This is the third two-year term of the Committee, established by the National Archives in 2013 under the Open Government National Action Plan 2.0. The Committee’s members, all experts in FOIA who were appointed by the Archivist of the United States, come from both inside and outside the government. Learn more about some of its members: Ginger McCallPatricia Weth, and Michael Morisy.  OGIS Director Alina M. Semo chairs the Committee and National Archives staff manages its work.

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Happy Public Service Recognition Week!

thanks for pub serSince 1985, the first full week of May has been designated as Public Service Recognition Week to honor those who serve our nation as Federal, state, county, and local government employees. Public service careers are not for those who seek glory—in fact, at its best, public service is largely invisible. We appreciate the annual opportunity to pause and applaud public servants, especially FOIA professionals.

At the Federal level, dedicated FOIA professionals embody some of the best aspects of public service. As the FOIA Ombudsman’s office, we have the opportunity to meet and interact with many FOIA professionals each year, and we find that most people who choose a career in FOIA do so not because they like records, or are fond of exemptions, but rather because they genuinely like people and enjoy working with them.

But while FOIA professionals relish to opportunity to work directly with FOIA requesters and agency colleagues, they also face mounting challenges. The number of FOIA requests received by agencies has continued to grow despite budget issues, inadequate staffing levels, and competing priorities. And earlier this fiscal year, many FOIA professionals were furloughed in the partial government shutdown.

So in this week recognizing the contribution of public servants, we encourage you to take a moment to thank the FOIA professionals who are working hard to increase transparency.

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Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Michael Morisy

Chief FOIA Officers Council Meeting

Today we present an interview with Michael Morisy, founder and chief executive of the non-profit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) tool and news site MuckRock and a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee. MuckRock has worked with more than 10,000 requesters to file, track and share their Federal FOIA and other public records requests. Over the next year, we will interview other members of the Advisory Committee so that you can get to know them better.

Why did you seek to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee?

When I first got into FOIA, my initial focus was what a powerful tool it is for journalists, researchers, and ordinary citizens to keep government accountable and really ensure we have an informed democracy. If you look at the journalism that leads to major changes and reforms, so much of it is driven by records received through the Freedom of Information Act. But over the last nine years, I’ve really come to see how critical it is that folks on the other side of the fence, in government, are given the tools they need to succeed. I’ve gotten to know so many amazing people — FOIA officers and others in government — who work incredibly diligently and creatively to keep our government open and transparent. I want to do what I can to make sure that they’re able to succeed in that mission.

What do you hope to accomplish?

I was drawn by the [Vision Subcommittee] mission of laying out a vision for FOIA that looks out a little bit in the longer term: In 10, 15 years, what should FOIA look like? So much of the process today is very paper-driven, very manual, and while it’s improving, I think the tools many agencies are given are still decades behind where they should be. So I think it’s useful to imagine how a young person today, if they were building transparency laws from scratch, what should it look like and how should it work? And then think through a plan to build towards that.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

I really worry that the expectations gap — of what FOIA can and should be versus what it is today — is widening, which leads to a lot of frustration on both sides. Requesters expect things to be getting faster than ever, more electronic and responsive, and we have not given agencies anywhere near the technology, training, or staffing to deliver on that, so they’re just kind of swamped trying to make 1970s processes meet 2019 expectations. I think groups on both sides often have the best intentions but we’re really not moving nearly quickly enough towards equipping agencies with the authority, staffing, technology, and training they need to bring FOIA into the future our public deserves.

Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.

I think FOIA really shines as a way to open up really critical issues, but some of my favorite moments are seeing what odd things can come out due to FOIA requests. MuckRock helped file a request for CIA cafeteria complaints that people just found fascinating and hilarious; spies are just like us, getting annoyed by vending machines that switch the Pepsi and Diet Pepsi. Or the time we received a board game under the Freedom of Information Act and then someone actually went and had it printed and produced. So you never know what will come out, but I think those kinds of things are an amazing way to get people to see government in a new light and get excited about FOIA.

 

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Epidemic of FOIA Excitement at CDC-Atlanta

 

martha at cdcOGIS Deputy Director Martha Murphy and Mediation Team Lead Carrie McGuire visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia this week to participate in the Center’s third annual FOIA training summit. This special event brought together FOIA processors, FOIA coordinators, appeals staff and others to discuss FOIA issues of special interest. The FOIA fever was contagious!

Ms. Murphy delivered a powerful keynote that illustrated the summit’s theme, “FOIA Matters.” Her talk included examples of documents released through FOIA that have impacted policy decisions and changed the lives of individuals. Ms. McGuire participated in a panel discussion that explored the use of FOIA technology. In her comments, Ms. McGuire emphasized that good FOIA technology begins at the design stage with systems that are built to meet FOIA and records management requirements.

The training program continued with a discussion of FOIA Exemption 5 from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of General Counsel. CDC’s FOIA Director Roger Andoh closed the program by encouraging the attendees to consider the importance of their role in promoting government openness.

Whether your FOIA staff is large or you are part of a team that is small but mighty, we encourage you to set aside a day for training. OGIS staff is glad to participate in training summits or brainstorm on topics – please get in touch with us at ogis@nara.gov if you would like to discuss.

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Take a Lunch Break With OGIS

lunch breakIf you didn’t have a chance to attend either of OGIS’s recent live events, good news! Both the most recent meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee and OGIS’s Sunshine Week event are available online, so you can catch up with OGIS from the comfort of your desk—maybe even while you eat your lunch! Plus, OGIS was recently featured on a podcast, so you can catch up with the FOIA Ombudsman while you are on the go.

The March 20 FOIA Advisory Committee meeting included an academic snapshot of the administration of FOIA; updates from the Committee’s three subcommittees—Time/Volume, Vision, and Records Management; and an overview of OGIS’s work as the FOIA Ombudsman.

OGIS celebrated Sunshine Week 2019 with a half-day program that included a conversation between David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and Beryl A. Howell, Chief Judge, US District Court for the District of Columbia, as well as panel discussions about OGIS’s past, present and future, and the future of electronic record keeping. We were also joined by Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who shared their thoughts about the importance of FOIA.

Finally, OGIS Director Alina M. Semo was recently featured on the podcast Federal Drive with Tom Temin. You can listen to it online, or subscribe to the podcast through your favorite podcast app.

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