Cheers for a National FOIA Portal

Join us in celebrating the latest news about the development of the National FOIA Portal. (NARA Identifier 199325)

Almost five and a half years ago we at OGIS recommended to Congress that the development of a governmentwide FOIA web portal could improve public access to government information. Now, thanks to ongoing collaboration between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB and the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and 18F, the digital services agency within the General Services Administration, we are closer than ever to having a National FOIA Portal.

Along with recommending the creation of the unified portal, OGIS was an early promoter of the effort to develop and expand FOIAonline, a multi-agency web platform that accepts FOIA requests, stores them in a repository for processing by agency staff, and allows an agency to post the released records in a centralized FOIA e-reading room. As we emphasized at the time, FOIAonline improved the experience for requesters, and saved taxpayers’ money by sharing agency resources and repurposing existing technology. FOIAonline also reduces the administrative burden on agencies since requester contact information is automatically stored in the system, and agencies can use the portal to communicate with the requester. Six of the 100-odd federal agencies that accept FOIA requests were a part of the FOIAonline launch, including part of the National Archives. As shown in 18F’s research while developing the National FOIA Portal, 10 percent of agencies now participate in FOIAonline, representing 17 percent of the total volume of requests processed by the federal government.

While FOIAonline has been a useful solution for its partners, we recognize that other agencies have found tools that they see as a better fit for their agencies’ needs and priorities. As 18F’s research also shows, in addition to FOIAonline, federal agencies have developed and maintain a variety of other online solutions to accept and manage FOIA requests. Their research also shows that a substantial number of agencies, especially those that process relatively few requests each year, rely on manual processes to take in and manage their FOIA caseload.

In the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Congress tasked OMB, in consultation with the Attorney General, to ensure the development and operation of a consolidated online request portal, and we were happy to participate in the Cross Agency Priority (CAP) Goal process that moved the National FOIA Portal and a number of other FOIA reforms forward. We are looking forward to seeing and testing the first iteration of 18F’s National FOIA Portal as soon as it is available, and sharing our feedback.

Posted in FOIA in the news, FOIAOnline, innovation, Open Government | 3 Comments

Return to Sender

Our new practice is to return misdirected information to a FOIA requester. (NARA Identifier 26413096)

As you might be aware if you regularly read our blog (or if you check our mediation program quarterly performance statistics), the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 created a surge in requests for our assistance. We have also received many submissions intended for other federal agencies – including misdirected appeals, certifications of identity, and other sensitive personal information.  Initially, we attempted to pass along all of these misdirected documents to the intended agency. We became concerned, however, that our practice might delay the transmission of the information to the correct agency and potentially place sensitive personal information at risk. To address these concerns, we will now to alert the requester of the error immediately and advise them to contact the agency directly.

Recently, as part of a larger initiative focused on improving customer service, we solicited feedback through the Chief FOIA Officers Council on ways to increase requester understanding of how to contact the agency versus how to request our assistance. As a result of these discussions, OIP issued updated template language for agencies to use in their response letters. If you see any agency FOIA response letters that do a really good job of explaining who customers should contact for assistance, or if an agency’s response is particularly confusing, please let us know!

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A Reminder on the Use of Still Interested Letters

It’s a good idea to keep in contact with FOIA requesters, but agencies should be judicious about the use of “still interested” letters. (National Archives ID 6011090)

As the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 approaches, we understand that agencies face increased pressure to close old requests and reduce their backlogs. This is also a good time to remind agencies about how to ensure their efforts comply with U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) guidance and best practices.

As we have talked about several times on this blog, the use of “still interested” letters to administratively close FOIA requests is often a sore point for requesters – particularly when the agency’s response to the request has been significantly delayed and the agency provides the requester with very little time to respond. On July 2, 2015, the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at DOJ issued guidance aimed at limiting the use of “still interested” letters, and addressing some of requesters’ frustrations with the practices.

Significantly, in its guidance OIP encouraged agencies to:

  • provide requesters with no fewer than 30 working days to respond (emphasis in original);
  • limit the use of “still-interested” inquiries to situations where the agency has a reasonable basis to conclude that the requester’s interest in the records may have changed; and
  • absent good cause, do not send a requester more than one “still interested” letter regarding a request.

After OIP issued the guidance, we undertook a fairly comprehensive review of the historical use of these letters and current agency practices. Based on our findings and observations, we made several recommendations, some of which are intended to help ensure that these letters are not abused. In particular, we have recommended that any FOIA program that uses “still interested” letters incorporate OIP’s guidance on the proper use of any “still interested” correspondence in any existing or future Standard Operating Procedures. We also recommend that the agency ensures that the FOIA program managers are aware of how FOIA processors are using “still interested” letters; one way to accomplish this is to require that any “still interested” correspondence is signed by the FOIA Officer.

OGIS continues to monitor the use of “still interested” letters, and reaches out to agency officials to bring potential problems to their attention. You can find some of our most recent letters to agencies about the use of these letters on our website. If you have received a “still interested” letter from an agency that does not seem to be compliance with OIP’s guidance, please email us a copy of that letter to ogis@nara.gov, along with a brief explanation of the circumstances surrounding the letter (i.e., the nature of your original request, how much time has passed from the filing of your original request to the time  you received a “still interested letter,” and whether you were ever contacted by telephone or email directly by the agency); or tweet to us about it at @FOIA_Ombuds.

Posted in Review | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in About FOIA, Open Government | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Review | 2 Comments

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!

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee, Open Government | Leave a comment

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

Uncle_Sam

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