What the Government’s Alphabet Soup Means for You

There are few things in the federal government that do not go by a three letter acronym—or, in government-speak, a TLA. As we at OGIS (that’s the Office of Government Information Services!)  are keenly aware, though, government acronyms are not limited to three letters—and they can refer to a  wide variety of things. One acronym that bears special mention is FOUO, aka “For Official Use Only.”

The federal government's alphabet soup can sometimes be confusing. (NARA Identifier 6402090)
The federal government’s alphabet soup can sometimes be confusing. (NARA Identifier 6402090)

FOUO is a designation that some agencies use to tell employees how information bearing this mark should be handled. FOUO handling procedures vary from agency to agency, sparking confusion. FOUO is not the only designation that can be confusing: a May 2009 Presidential Memorandum cited the existence of more than 107 unique markings and over 130 different labeling or handling processes and procedures for documents that are unclassified, but are considered sensitive. These markings collectively are referred to by one of two TLAs: CUI (Controlled Unclassified Information) or SBU (Sensitive But Unclassified).

Our colleagues in the National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office lead an effort to standardize the use of CUI across the federal government. For people who care about access to government records, though, it should be clear that the letters that matter most are F-O-I-A.

Section § 2002.27 of the May 8, 2015 proposed rule on CUI makes it very clear that CUI designations do not dictate whether a record should be withheld under FOIA. This statement is in line with provisions in the executive order creating the CUI program (EO 13556, Section 2(b)) and joint guidance from the CUI office and the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy from July 2014 (which superseded similar guidance from November 2011).

Of course, memos and rules do not execute themselves. One of the best ways to make sure that CUI designations do not hurt your ability to access government records using FOIA is to increase awareness of the issue. We encourage you all to take a look at the CUI proposed rule and comment before the July 7 deadline. If you are interested in the topic, please also consider attending the open meeting on CUI scheduled for May 28 at the National Archives in Washington, DC.