Updates to Agency Compliance Report Pages

OGIS’s Compliance Team follows up with FOIA programs we assess 120 days after we publish our report to learn what improvements, if any, have been made to the program. Once this process is complete, we contact the agency to let them know that we have evaluated their responses and “closed” recommendations that have been addressed. Of the 60 recommendations we made in our assessments of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration, and Customs and Border Protection, we have closed 58 recommendations—almost 97 percent.
agencystatusInterested in the latest on OGIS’s compliance program? We updated our website to include a page for each assessment we complete (visit here). Each page includes the executive summary of the compliance report, a link to download the complete report, and materials related to our 120-day follow-up process (including our letter closing recommendations).

Please take a look at the updated agency compliance report section and let us know if you have any suggestions on how to make it more user friendly!

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OGIS Welcomes a New Director

Archivist of the United States Davis S. Ferriero has announced the appointment of Alina M. Semo as Director of the Office of Government Information Services. Ms. Semo joins OGIS from the National Archives’ Office of General Counsel, where she has served as Director of Litigation in the Office of General Counsel since March, 2014.

In his announcement, the Archivist said: “Ms. Semo is a dedicated public servant who is uniquely qualified for this position.  Her extensive experience with FOIA at both the administrative stage and in Federal court litigation, knowledge of National Archives, and commitment to Open Government will serve her well in her position as Director of OGIS.”

“I am very excited to accept the position and to join a staff who is as dedicated and passionate about improving access to information as I am,” said Ms. Semo.  “I am proud to continue on the positive path that the previous Directors have set before me, and to continue to honor the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.”

During her time at the National Archives, Ms. Semo worked closely with the FOIA team and other National Archives offices to respond to FOIA requests and appeals. She also provided frequent legal advice to ensure consistent agency responses, and helped rewrite the National Archives’ FOIA regulations. Additionally, she provided legal guidance and support to OGIS on administrative and mediation processes, and on issues involving the FOIA Advisory Committee.

Before joining the National Archives, Ms. Semo led the FOIA Litigation Unit of the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel for over 10 years and was a trial attorney in the Federal Programs Branch of the Civil Division at the U.S. Department of Justice (1991-1999). Ms. Semo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Juris Doctor degree from Georgetown University Law School.

We hope you will all join us in welcoming Ms. Semo to the OGIS team!

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FEMA Improves FOIA Compliance

FEMA responded to the recommendations included in our FOIA compliance assessment report. (NARA Identifier 24481743)

FEMA responded to the recommendations included in our FOIA compliance assessment report. (NARA Identifier 24481743)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been working to strengthen its FOIA program and improve the agency’s compliance with the law (Read the response here: fema-ogis-response-11-16-web. FEMA recently contacted OGIS in response to the recommendations in our compliance assessment of the FEMA FOIA program.

According to FEMA, agency leadership is focusing on staffing, training and development in an effort to reduce the overall backlog. FEMA also reported that it has implemented or is in the process of implementing most of the recommendations included in OGIS’s compliance report.

Notably, FEMA reported that it is using its FOIA processing and tracking system to sort requests into simple and complex queues, and assigning a combination of simple and complex requests to its Disclosure Program analysts. FEMA is also using the system’s reporting capabilities as a management and quality control oversight tool and providing FEMA leadership with data on the volume of records processed each week to improve understanding and awareness of the FOIA workload. According to FEMA, this will help the agency respond more quickly to relatively simple requests and better manage its resources.

FEMA also informed us that it updated its internal policies to direct Disclosure Program analysts to call requesters on a quarterly basis to discuss the status of their requests. As we noted in our report, lack of response was a factor in all FOIA litigation filed against FEMA between 2009 and the time of our report. Proactively communicating with requesters about their requests might help avoid future lawsuits against the agency.

We applaud the steps FEMA has taken to improve the performance of their FOIA program, and look forward to continuing to work with the agency on ways to continue to make the FOIA process more efficient and effective.

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Who Ya Gonna Call?

Luckily figuring out who to call for help with a FOIA is much less dangerous than fixing a phone line. (NARA Identifier 6439330)

Luckily figuring out who to call for help with a FOIA is much less dangerous than fixing a phone line. (NARA Identifier 6439330)

The FOIA process can be confusing for requesters, especially those who are filing their first FOIA requests or who do not know much about how a particular agency functions. Unfortunately, figuring out who you should contact within an agency to clear up that confusion and assist with a request can be equally baffling.

FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons are here to help, but who you gonna call—and when? Agencies were required to set up FOIA Requester Service Centers and designate FOIA Public Liaisons when President George W. Bush issued Executive Order (EO) 13392, Improving Agency Disclosure of Information, in December 2005. The EO describes FOIA Requester Service Centers as the first stop for requesters to receive updates about their requests and information about the agency’s response. It also requires agencies to appoint one or more FOIA Public Liaisons who should serve as supervisory officials to whom requesters can raise concerns about the service they are provided by the Requester Service Center.

The OPEN Government Act of 2007 (the FOIA amendments that also created our office) added the role of FOIA Public Liaison to the statute, giving them responsibility for “assisting in reducing delays, increasing transparency and understanding of the status of requests, and assisting in the resolution of disputes.” As we have talked about on this blog before, the recently enacted FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 further expanded the role of agency FOIA Public Liaisons (and OGIS) in helping requesters navigate the FOIA process.

If you have questions about your FOIA request (such as its status), it makes sense to first contact agency’s FOIA Requester Service Center. If the Requester Service Center cannot answer your question, or if you need assistance narrowing a request or understanding an agency’s response, you should reach out to the FOIA Public Liaison.

You may find the contact information for the agency’s Requester Service Center and FOIA Public Liaison in its response to your request or on the “Contacts” section of FOIA.gov, a website maintained by the Department of Justice. You can also find it on the agency’s FOIA webpage (in most cases, an agency includes a link to its FOIA webpage at the bottom of the homepage).

Of course, if you ever have trouble reaching someone at an agency who can assist you with your FOIA request, we are happy to help! For the quickest response, call us at 202-741-5770 or email us at ogis@nara.gov.

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Teaching the Next Generation about the Power of FOIA

foia-infographic2Earlier this year, the National Archives committed in both the Third U.S. Open Government National Action Plan and its Fourth Agency Open Government Plan to develop tools to help teach the next generation about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The tools will draw upon real-world examples that foster democracy and explain how the public can use FOIA to learn more about the government’s actions.

As part of meeting this commitment, we developed an infographic that explains 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.

The plan is to integrate the infographic into lesson plans that are available through DocsTeach, 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 activity 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.

The first activity using the infographic will explore the public’s response to the civil rights marches beginning in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. In response to FOIA requests, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a number of records detailing the events that occurred in Selma.

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.

We look forward to hearing from you, and to announcing release of the first lesson plan that incorporates FOIA.

Posted in About FOIA, Open Government | 1 Comment

FOIA Advisory Committee Sets 2016-2018 Agenda

committeeagendaAt its October 25, 2016 meeting, the FOIA Advisory Committee made some important decisions—identifying the issues its members will address during its two-year term. By the end of the meeting, the Committee formed three subcommittees: Search; Efficiencies and Resources; and Proactive Disclosure and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

OGIS Acting Director Nikki Gramian kicked off the discussion by reviewing the difficult FOIA issues committee members identified at the July meeting, including  the use of technology; commitment and awareness by leadership of an agency’s obligations under FOIA; encouraging the adoption of best practices; requester frustration with the process; and encouraging proactive disclosure while ensuring compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires Federal agencies to make their electronic records accessible to people with disabilities.  During their discussion at yesterday’s meeting, members of the committee refined the previously identified issues into topics that they want to address and deliberated about how to effectively tackle the problems. Committee members decided that each of the subcommittees would look at how they might address the problem using best practices, technology, and/or legislative proposals, if applicable.

Committee members also chose leaders for the newly formed subcommittees according to the Committee’s by-laws, which require that a government and a non-government member act as co-chairs:

  • Search: Nate Jones (National Security Archive) and Logan Perel (Department of Homeland Security)
  • Efficiencies and Resources: Chris Knox (Deloitte Transactions and Business Analytics LLP) and Ginger McCall (Department of Labor)
  • Proactive Disclosure and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: William Holzerland (Food & Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health) and Margaret Kwoka  (University of Denver Sturm College of Law)

You can learn more about the FOIA Advisory Committee members by reviewing the biographies posted on our FOIA Advisory Committee page, and mark your calendars for future meetings and download committee materials by visiting the meetings page. You can also a keep up with the latest FOIA Advisory Committee news by regularly reading this blog and following us on Twitter.

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OGIS Releases Immigration and Customs Enforcement FOIA Compliance Assessment

President Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. (NARA Identifier 2803428)

President Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. (NARA Identifier 2803428)

Today we are publishing our FOIA compliance assessment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The report shows how ICE’s investments in its FOIA program enabled the agency to virtually eliminate its FOIA backlog in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015.

In FY 2012, ICE’s backlog spiked to 2,443 requests. The number of FOIA requests received and ICE’s backlog continued to grow rapidly during FY 2013 and FY 2014, driven in large part by ICE’s termination in April 2012 of an agreement with the another DHS component, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The agreement had allowed USCIS to process ICE information found in a certain type of frequently requested immigration record. Without the agreement, ICE’s backlog swelled to 56,863 requests in FY 2014, accounting for almost 55 percent of the overall backlog at DHS and almost 36 percent of the overall backlog Government-wide.

In addition to investing in the program in FY 2015 to eliminate the FOIA backlog, ICE adopted management controls to measure and increase the FOIA staff’s productivity. ICE also used its FOIA processing and tracking system to make its process efficient and invested in other technology to further streamline the process. At the end of FY 2015, ICE reported a backlog of 555 requests, accounting for one-half of a percent of the overall DHS backlog.

Download a copy of our report to learn about all of our observations about ICE’s FOIA program and our recommendations.

The assessment is the last of six we conducted at DHS components. Keep an eye on this blog for a final report on the DHS Privacy Office, which is delegated with the authority to develop and oversee the implementation of policies within the DHS regarding compliance with FOIA.

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CBP Takes Additional Steps to Improve its FOIA Program

CBP recently responded to recommendations from our agency FOIA compliance assessment. (NARA Identifier 7855144)

CBP recently responded to recommendations from our agency FOIA compliance assessment. (NARA Identifier 7855144)

In March, we released our assessment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program at Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Our report explained how support from CBP’s leadership and the effort of the FOIA staff improved the agency’s FOIA performance. As our report documents, CBP’s decisions to put in place management controls, to invest in technology, and to improve communication with requesters helped the agency to reduce its backlog in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 by 74 percent—from 34,307 requests to 9,024 requests. The changes also improved CBP’s responsiveness to requests: during FY 2015, CBP responded to most simple requests within the 20 working days allowed under the law.

CBP recently responded to the questionnaire we send to FOIA programs 120 days after we publish our assessments, and there is even more good news to report. Among the improvements CBP outlines in its response: a new system that helps the FOIA office better manage requests to program offices for searches for responsive records and raises the visibility of the FOIA program at the agency’s most senior levels. CBP’s response also details the office’s efforts to further streamline the process and ensure that the FOIA program has access to sufficient staff to keep up with the volume of requests.

Please take a look at CBP’s response and keep an eye on the Compliance section of our website to keep up with our latest agency assessments.

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Reserve Your Seat for the October 25 FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

(From left) Melanie Pustay, Director of the Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy (OIP); Nikki Graham, Acting Director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), and Sean Moulton, Open Government Program Manager at POGO, get a laugh from one of their colleagues statements during the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee meeting at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on July 21, 2016. NARA photo by Brogan Jackson.

We hope you can join in on the fun during the October 25, 2016 FOIA Advisory Committee meeting. NARA photo by Brogan Jackson.

Registration is now open for the October 25, 2016, meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee! The meeting will be from 10 am to 1 pm at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

During this meeting, the Committee members will form subcommittees and determine the FOIA issues they want to tackle over the next two years. The US Access Board and the General Services Administration will speak to the Committee about the accessibility requirements that government agencies face when posting information online; these requirements are spelled out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Compliance with Section 508 has been a hot topic in FOIA over the last few years as agencies post more records online. The agenda also notes that there will be an opportunity for the public to provide the Committee with comments.

This meeting will not be webcast, but you can follow @FOIA_Ombuds for live updates. We will post video to YouTube as soon as possible. If you are able to join us in person, please register as soon as possible. We hope to see you there!

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Help Me FOIA. Help, Help Me FOIA.

As we have discussed, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 requires that agencies inform FOIA requesters that they can ask for assistance from OGIS and an agency’s FOIA Public Liaison (FPL) throughout the request process. But what kind of help can requesters expect to receive from FPLs and OGIS?

While FOIA gives both OGIS and agency FPLs responsibility for resolving disputes that arise from the FOIA process, our roles are distinct in one important way: OGIS acts as a neutral third party to a dispute. Our independence from the agency enables us to mediate disputes between agencies and requesters and defines the kind of assistance we can provide.

help

As the FOIA Ombudsman, we work to improve public understanding of the FOIA process; we fulfill this role using tools like the resources section of our website, our blog and our Twitter feed. We also regularly answer questions from individual requesters about the FOIA process and suggest the proper agency to receive a request. FPLs, on the other hand, can provide valuable insight into the kinds of records that an agency has on a certain topic, the agency’s record keeping systems, or which offices might have responsive records.

FPLs can also assist with a request that has been previously submitted. For instance, the FPL can help a requester reformulate and streamline a request, resulting in a quicker response and minimized fees. FPLS can also provide information about the status of requests, including an estimated date of completion. If a requester cannot contact the agency FOIA Public Liaison, we can reach out on the requester’s behalf; we can also act as a third party to help facilitate a discussion about the scope of the request, the agency’s search for records, fees, et cetera. We can also help a requester understand the agency’s actions on a request and explain the importance of the appeals process to protecting administrative rights.

As a non-exclusive alternative to litigation, OGIS is well-suited to assist requesters who still dispute the agency’s actions after the agency has acted on an appeal. In particular, OGIS can help by providing requesters with additional information or a more thorough explanation of the agency’s actions. OGIS’s facilitators can also help resolve the dispute or narrow the issues through our mediation services.

Do you have a specific question about how we might be able to help resolve your FOIA issue? Write to us at ogis@nara.gov or call us at 202-741-5770 (toll free: 1-877-684-6448). You can also write to us at:

National Archives and Records Administration
Office of Government Information Services
8601 Adelphi Road – OGIS
College Park, MD 20740-6001

Posted in About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Customer service, FOIA Public Liaisons | 2 Comments