Help Us Keep Improving Our Website!

websitescreenshotWe hope you like the new look and feel of our updated website (do not worry if you do not see the updated version yet, it might take some time for the changes to roll out)! Over the past few weeks we have used this blog to give you a preview of the new site and a guide to finding our content.

As a reminder, this update includes a change to our website’s URL. You can now find our homepage at www.archives.gov/ogis. We expect that many of our pages will automatically re-direct to the updated address. If a bookmark for one of our pages no longer works, you can find most of the content from our old website by simply moving the “ogis” from the front of the URL to between backslashes and deleting “htm” from the end of the URL.

For example:

One of the most exciting aspects of this website update is that our content is now in Drupal, an open source content management system that makes our website responsive to mobile devices. Using Drupal also makes it easier for the National Archives staff to update our content.

Now we want your help to continue to improve our website! As we learn more about Drupal, we plan to integrate other features into our website and improve our content’s organization. If you have any suggestions, please let us know by emailing ogis@nara.gov or contacting us on Twitter at @FOIA_Ombuds.

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Keep It Simple and Specific

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Make your FOIA requests as simple and specific as possible for the best results. (NARA Identifier 7666253)

Because we help resolve disputes between agencies and FOIA requesters, we see a broad sample of the kinds of requests that members of the public file with agencies. Seeing this range of requests also gives us a pretty good idea of what strategies seem to work well, and what seem to cause unintended problems.

One practice that seems to complicate requests is for a requester to put a lot of energy into describing why he or she wants the information.  One of the bedrock principles of the FOIA is that who you are or what you plan to do with the records is irrelevant – it has no bearing on whether an agency should release records to you (unless, of course, you are asking for your own records). In fact, unless you are asking for fees to be waived or to be categorized as a requester that is charged a minimal amount of fees (representative of the media, educational, or noncommercial scientific institution), or you seek expedited processing of your request, you are not required to tell the agency anything about yourself beyond your contact information.

On the other hand, requesters that provide a great deal of specificity about the information that they want from an agency are generally more successful. Being specific about the information you want can help the agency locate the information; it can also save the agency’s time by not making the agency process records that are not really important to you, and save you, as the requester, the hassle of reading through pages that you do not really want. If you do not know enough about the types of records that the agency keeps, or need some insight into which offices might have records that are of interest to you, try calling the agency’s FOIA Requester Service Center or FOIA Public Liaison before you file your request. You can find contact information on the agency’s FOIA webpage or here on FOIA.gov.

Our basic advice for filing a successful FOIA request can be distilled into a few simple phrases. Here are some basic dos and don’ts for your next request:

Do:

  • be simple and straightforward;
  • be specific and precise; and
  • be polite and respectful

Don’t:

  • be complicated or convoluted
  • be vague and imprecise; and
  • be inconsiderate and antagonistic

With these guidelines in mind, you too can file better FOIA requests. If you do have any issues with your request, we are also here to help. You can ask for our assistance by email at ogis@nara.gov or by mail at Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001. Although you can also usually fax us your request for assistance at 202-741-5769, our fax number is temporarily out of service as we complete our move.

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Finding Content on Our Updated Website: A Guide

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Use this guide to find content on our upgraded website! (NARA Identifier 2130141)

As we let you know last week, we will soon be rolling out an update to the OGIS website. We are very excited about the fresh look and feel of the site and are back today to tell you a little bit more about what you can expect after the update goes into effect.

Hopefully you have gone ahead and taken a few minutes to identify any of our pages that you have bookmarked. As we noted, we expect many of our website pages to automatically resolve to the updated web address (archives.gov/ogis). If your bookmark no longer works, you can find most of the content from our old website by simply moving the “ogis” from the front of the URL to between backslashes and deleting “htm” from the end of the URL.

For example:

  • the page for the FOIA Advisory Committee will change from ogis.archives.gov/foia-advisory-committee.htm to archives.gov/ogis/foia-advisory-committee
  • the webpage for OGIS’s Annual Reports will change from ogis.archives.gov/about-ogis/annual-reports.htm to archives.gov/ogis/about-ogis/annual-reports

In addition to getting a new address and a coat of paint, our website is also getting an extensive behind the scenes overhaul. Our content will be migrated into Drupal, which is an open source content management system. In addition to making our website responsive to mobile devices, the move to Drupal will make it easier for National Archives staff to update our content.

After the new website is up and running, we will be looking for ways to integrate other features into our website and improve our content’s organization. If you have any trouble finding any content, or if you have any suggestions to improve the site, please let us know by emailing ogis@nara.gov or contacting us on Twitter at @FOIA_Ombuds.

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Update Your Address Book: OGIS is Moving!

Within the next few weeks, OGIS will have a new physical and virtual home.

Contacting our New Office

Beginning on May 5th, our offices will be located within the Government Publishing Office at 732 North Capitol St. NW, Washington, DC 20401. While we are doing everything possible to ensure that the move is as seamless as possible, there will be some disruption in our work. Please bear with us as we settle into our new location.

If you are mailing us a request for assistance resolving a FOIA dispute, please continue to use the address 8601 Adelphi Road – OGIS College Park, MD 20740-6001. Our toll free number, and phone numbers for all of our staff, will remain the same.

A New Website

websitescreenshotWe are also very excited to announce that in mid-May our new website will be live! The new website will feature the same content you know and love, with an updated URL, a fresh look and feel, and an extensive behind-the-scenes upgrade.

Our home page will be moving from ogis.archives.gov to archives.gov/ogis. While we expect many of our website pages to automatically resolve to the updated web address, you might want to take a few minutes to identify any pages that you have bookmarked.

The move also includes a bit of a makeover for our site. Most noticeably, our navigation bar will move from the top of our website, to the left-hand side. You will also be able to navigate our site using the “breadcrumbs” at the top of the page. “Breadcrumbs” are intended to help visitors better understand the website’s organization and easily find their way to related content.

This update also comes with an extensive behind-the-scenes overhaul. The content on our new website will be migrated into Drupal, an open source content management system. The new content management system will make our website more responsive to mobile devices, and make it easier for National Archives staff to update our content.  

We are looking forward to unveiling our new virtual home!  If you have any questions, please let us know by emailing ogis@nara.gov or contacting us on Twitter at @FOIA_Ombuds.

Posted in About OGIS | 4 Comments

OGIS is Still Interested in Still Interested Letters

Still Interested ScreenshotAlmost a year ago we published our report on recommendations to improve the transparency of the use of “still interested” letters to administratively close FOIA requests and reduce requester frustration with the practice. Our recommendations were based on findings of an in-depth review of historical annual FOIA report data and interviews with selected FOIA programs regarding their policies and practices.

For those of you who are not familiar with them, still interested letters is a generic phrase used to refer to correspondence from an agency asking a requester to respond by a certain date if he or she would still like the agency to process a particular request (i.e., “are you still interested in getting a response to this request?”) that has been pending in the agency’s backlog for a period of time. Our review of the use of these letters found that while a very small percentage of requests are closed each year using still interested letters, the available data does not capture the irritation that the practice causes for requesters – particularly if the agency provides the requester with only a few days to respond before the request is closed, despite the fact that the agency’s response to the FOIA request has been delayed for a year or longer. We also noted a lack of transparency regarding the use of these letters to close out FOIA requests.

In our report, we recommended that OGIS take two steps: first, we recommended that we continue to evaluate the use of still interested letters as part of our agency compliance assessment program. Since our report’s release, we noted issues with the use of still interested letters in our report on the United States Secret Service’s FOIA program, and recommended that the Secret Service take steps to bring the use of these letters in line with guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice that limits the use of these letters. The Secret Service FOIA staff concurred with our recommendation, and reports that it has since re-enforced the appropriate use of still interested letters and plans to provide additional training to staff on the proper use of these letters.

We also recommended that we bring potential abuse of these letters to the attention of appropriate agency officials as necessary. Shortly after the release of our report, we were alerted by requesters to their continued use by the State Department FOIA staff, and brought this issue to the attention of the State Department’s Chief FOIA Officer, Joyce Barr. In June, Ms. Barr responded to our letter to let us know about the steps the State Department is taking to bring its use of these letters into compliance with the Department of Justice’s guidance on their use.

We continue to be interested in how agencies are using still interested letters.  We are asking for your help and feedback to better understand how agencies are currently using these letters. If you have received a still interested letter from an agency in the last year, 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 long you waited until 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.

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Don’t Miss Our First Annual Open Meeting on April 20th

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RSVP to join the audience for our first annual Open Meeting and share your views. NARA Photo by Jess Deibert.

We hope you are planning to join us for our first annual Open Meeting on Thursday, April 20th in the William G. McGowan Theater! If you cannot attend in person, you can still watch all of the action via the livestream on YouTube.

As we noted in our blog post announcing the meeting a few weeks ago, the meeting is intended to provide the public with an update on the office’s activities, and give interested persons an opportunity to present oral or written statements. You can also submit written statements to ogis@nara.gov.

As we outlined in our Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Annual Report, the passage of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 had a profound impact on OGIS. We are excited to hear your thoughts about or expanded role and visibility in the FOIA process, and how we can better carry out our dispute resolution and compliance functions.

The Open Meeting is scheduled to run from 9:00 a.m. to 9:45 a.m., with a majority of the time reserved for public comments. There is no need to sign up to submit comments, but you do need to RSVP to attend the meeting.

If you are interested, we hope you will also stick around to watch the FOIA Advisory Committee meeting beginning at 10 a.m. During the meeting, Committee members will provide updates on the ongoing work of the Committee’s three subcommittees: Search; Efficiencies and Resources; and Proactive Disclosure.

Posted in About OGIS, FOIA Advisory Committee, OGIS events | 1 Comment

New OGIS Handout Available

It will come as no surprise to our regular readers when we say that the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 has resulted in substantial changes to OGIS’s operations. As we have talked about in a few blog posts, OGIS now has an expanded role in providing dispute resolution throughout the FOIA process. The amendments have also strengthened our mandate to review agency FOIA compliance and to identify strategies to improve compliance.

Under the amended statute, requesters are given information about the availability of dispute resolution services from agency FOIA Public Liaisons and OGIS at several stages in the administrative process. This requirement had an immediate and dramatic impact on our caseload: our recently-released Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report described a 142-percent increase in demand for our services in the last quarter of FY 2016 compared to the number of cases opened during the same period in FY 2015. The jump in our caseload has continued during FY 2017: before the end of the first half of FY 2017, we opened nearly twice as many cases than we did during all of FY 2016.

OGIS Infographic

Our new handout includes a chart outlining the kinds of assistance we can provide versus agency FOIA Public Liaisons.

As we work on these new cases, we have observed that requesters are often confused about who they should contact for assistance, and they appear to not understand our role vis-à-vis the role of agency FOIA Public Liaisons. For example, we have had situations where requesters have contacted us instead of filing an appeal, or attempted to file an appeal with us rather than the agency.

To better explain OGIS’s role in the process, and the types of assistance that we can offer requesters, we have published a new handout. The handout, which is available on the OGIS Toolbox in the Resources section of our website, clearly describes Who We Are, What We Do, and how to get in contact with us. The back of the handout gives a brief description of the kinds of assistance you can expect to receive from us versus an agency FOIA Public Liaison before you file a request, during the FOIA process, and once the administrative appeal process has concluded.

If you have any suggestions for how we can better serve our customers, we hope to see you at our April 20th Annual Open Meeting in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives. As we announced last week, during the public meeting, we will provide an overview of our reviews and reports; the public will also be able to submit oral and written statements. Learn more and RSVP via Eventbrite to attend.  If you are unable to attend in person, we will be livestreaming the meeting on the National Archives’ YouTube Channel. Use this YouTube link  to watch the meeting beginning at 9 am.

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OGIS Public Meeting and FOIA Advisory Committee Session: April 20th

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Deliberations during the FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting at the National Archives in Washington, DC on July 21, 2016. Photo by Brogan Jackson.

Mark your calendars to join us in the William G. McGowan Theater in the National Archives’ downtown DC location on Thursday, April 20th for two events!

The day will kick off with OGIS’s first public meeting beginning at 9 am.  This meeting (which is a new requirement created by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016) is intended to provide the public with an update on the office’s activities, and give members of the public an opportunity to present oral or written statements. You can get a preview of our reports and other work over the last year by reading our recently-released Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report. Register to attend the event via Eventbrite and please contact Amy Bennett at amy.bennett@nara.gov or 202-741-5782 with any questions about the event.

After a short break, we will re-convene at 10 am EDT for the next scheduled meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee. During the meeting, co-chairs of the Committee’s three subcommittees – Search; Efficiencies and Resources; and Proactive Disclosure and Accessibility – will present updates on their work. The agenda (draft agenda will be posted on this page soon) also includes a special presentation on the use of e-discovery tools to locate records that are responsive to a FOIA request. Register via Eventbrite to join us in person.

If you cannot join us in person, both meetings will be livestreamed via the National Archives’ YouTube Channel. Be sure to check out the Events tab on our website for updates and follow @FOIA_Ombuds for a link to the broadcast.

Posted in About OGIS, FOIA Advisory Committee, OGIS events | 1 Comment

Register Now for Dispute Resolution Training for FOIA Professionals on April 18th

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Join us to sharpen your dispute resolution skills on April 18! (NARA Identifier  596401)

Did you know that dispute resolution skills can help you improve communication with not just FOIA requesters, but also with your agency colleagues, and even your friends and family? Register today for our April 18th Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training session, where you can get hands-on experience with these valuable tools.

This training is intended to teach FOIA professionals practical communication skills to help them understand and resolve disputes. We also give training participants a chance to test drive their skills and fine-tune their approach through activities and a role-playing exercise.

Registration for these sessions always fills up fast. You can sign up for the session using Eventbrite.

We also offer agency-specific training. If you are a FOIA professional  interested in having us conduct a training session for your agency, please contact Carrie McGuire at carrie.mcguire@nara.gov or at (202) 741-5774

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United States Secret Service Reports Steps to Strengthen FOIA Program

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The Secret Service protects the President’s limousine during the 1997 Presidential Inaugural Parade. (NARA Identifier 6520033)

In late February, the United States Secret Service (USSS) FOIA sent us a letter responding to the 12 recommendations we made in our compliance assessment report of their FOIA program. In the letter, USSS reports that they concur with each of our recommendations and explain the steps that are underway to strengthen the FOIA program and improve FOIA compliance.

USSS reports that they are using their FOIA processing and tracking system as a management and quality assurance tool, and are reporting information about the number of pages processed each week to management to highlight the FOIA workload. The FOIA program is also working with the USSS Performance Management Team in their Office of Human Resources to develop new performance measures for FOIA staff.  They are also developing a data-driven backlog reduction plan to reduce the current backlog by 10 percent.

USSS also reports that they have taken a number of steps to address technical issues with their FOIA processing and tracking system that were impacting the FOIA program’s productivity and efficiency. In particular, the USSS reports that they have invested in increased technical support from a contractor to stabilize the system and are providing the FOIA program with in-house technical support. USSS also reports that they are exploring how to provide requesters with information about the status of their requests online.

USSS has also provided us with information about what they are doing to help improve their communication with requesters. Notably, USSS reported that they have developed template letters to provide requesters with an update on the status of particularly old requests and to describe why certain material is exempt from disclosure. USSS also reports that they are re-enforcing the appropriate use of “still interested” letters with the staff and plan to provide additional training to the staff on the proper use of “still interested” letters pursuant to current Department of Justice guidance.

We are excited to hear about all of USSS’ efforts to strengthen their FOIA program, and look forward to continuing to work with agencies to ensure the effective implementation of FOIA. We have closed all 12 OGIS recommendations in light of the USSS’ response.

Posted in Review | 1 Comment