Leveraging Technology in FOIA Searches

switchboardSearching for responsive records under FOIA works best when processors cross disciplines to collaborate with technology experts at their respective agencies. An OGIS assessment of the 2019 Chief FOIA Officer (CFO) reports shows that while a majority of agencies report using technology to facilitate efficiency in conducting searches, only about one in five agencies report collaborating with colleagues with technology expertise who are outside of the FOIA office.

The seven-page assessment, titled Leveraging Technology to Improve FOIA Searches,  focuses on three recommendations from the 2016-2018 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee to the Archivist of the United States aimed at improving searches. One of the three recommendations by the Committee was that the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) collect detailed information in CFO reports regarding specific methods and technologies that agencies are using to search their electronic records, including email. OGIS examined the  CFO reports and summarizes the responses to this question in this assessment.

Examples of how agencies are leveraging technology are included in the report. See an idea that you wish to know more about? Contact OGIS and we will put you in touch with your counterparts at other agencies to start a discussion.

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Join Us for the Next FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting!

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee has come full circle on several of its 2018 recommendations, including that the Chief FOIA Officers (CFO) Council study FOIA technology across agencies. The co-chairmen of the CFO Council Technology Subcommittee—Eric Stein of the State Department and Michael Sarich of the Veterans Health Administration—will report back to the FOIA Advisory Committee at its next meeting on September 5, 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.

Since the Council’s Technology Subcommittee formed in September 2018, FOIA professionals from 11 departments and agencies have assessed the FOIA IT landscape and are identifying best practices and recommendations for agencies in accordance with the FOIA Advisory Committee’s recommendation.

Also on the agenda for the FOIA Advisory Committee are updates from the Committee’s three subcommittees—Records Management, Time/Volume, and Vision—and an update on previous Committee recommendations from the 2016-2018 term and the 2014-2016 term.  A public comment period concludes the meeting.

If you are interested in attending the September 5, 2019, meeting, 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 meeting is the fifth 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. The National Archives established the Committee in 2014 and its members, appointed by the Archivist, come from both inside and outside the government. Alina M. Semo, Director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), chairs to the Committee, and National Archives staff manages its work.

Congress created the CFO Council in the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. The directors of OGIS and the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy co-chair the Council, which must meet publicly at last once a year in accordance with FOIA. The Council met on August 5, 2019. If you missed it, you can watch here.

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Share Your Thoughts with the FOIA Advisory Committee

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What challenges do you face as you navigate the FOIA process? Whether you are an agency FOIA professional or a FOIA requester, the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee wants to hear from you.

The Committee is asking both those who administer and use the Federal FOIA to take a voluntary survey to help inform its understanding of FOIA challenges.

Your privacy will be protected — no personal information is collected in either the agency or the requester survey and no identifying information will be shared. If you decide to take the survey (and we hope you will), you may change your mind and withdraw at any point in the survey. You may also choose to skip any questions that you do not wish to answer.

Agency FOIA professionals can access the survey here, while FOIA requesters can access the survey here. The survey, which opened in July, is open through Labor Day — Monday September 2nd.

The FOIA Advisory Committee is a group of 20 FOIA experts from both inside and outside of government who are tasked with studying FOIA across the government, soliciting public comments, and recommending improvements to the Archivist of the United States.

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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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