Chief FOIA Officers Council: Upcoming Virtual Meeting & a New Officer for DHS

There is still time to register for the upcoming Chief FOIA Officers Council meeting, which takes place from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on October 14, 2020. Please register using Eventbrite; we will follow up with Webex instructions. We will also live stream the meeting on the National Archives’ YouTube channel for those who wish to observe, but oral public comments can be accepted via Webex only. 

The Council, co-chaired by the Directors of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP), is tasked with developing recommendations to increase agency compliance and efficiency and to share agency best practices and innovative approaches. 

There will be some new faces at the Council meeting, including recently appointed Department of Homeland Security Chief FOIA Officer Dena Kozanas. We recently asked Ms. Kozanas some get-to-know-you questions:

1. Please tell us briefly about yourself. 

Much of my adult professional life has involved public service.  I worked for the House of Representatives for about 10 years before leaving for the Executive Branch. After leaving Capitol Hill, I worked at the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) as the Acting Chief of Staff and Counselor to Board Member Beth Collins.  In 2018, I first joined the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as Chief of Staff in the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, and in March 2020 I had the honor of being appointed the DHS Chief Privacy Officer and Chief FOIA Officer by Acting Secretary Chad Wolf.  

2. What was your first experience with FOIA?

While at PCLOB I had a role in developing the agency’s FOIA program, which has given me first-hand knowledge of many of the challenges FOIA offices face in responding to requests.  

3. What motivated you to take your current position? 

The DHS Privacy Office plays a critical role assisting the Department in accomplishing its mission while embedding a culture of privacy and transparency.  My intent is to shape the DHS Privacy Office into a forward-leaning DHS headquarters element which efficiently leverages our assets to maximize our utility to the Department throughout the policymaking lifecycle, particularly in the beginning stages.  Building privacy and disclosure into our policies and procedures – rather than treating them as back-end considerations – improves our value to the Department and the public.  It is also equally important to streamline our responsiveness to internal and external stakeholders as we work to build transparency into all DHS activities.  One of my initiatives to increase responsiveness to the public is to launch a Privacy Office Twitter handle (@dhs_priv), which I hope all of your readers are following.  I use the handle to share information about our privacy activities, new FOIA disclosures, and other items of interest. 

4. Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment. 

I enjoy meeting with Members of Congress to introduce myself as the Chief Privacy Officer & Chief FOIA Officer and to share with them the great work our FOIA team does.  Both within the Privacy Office and across our Components, I have been consistently impressed by the professionalism and hard work of our DHS FOIA professionals.  While I am always happy to give them an update on our backlog, and on our strategy to responsibly reduce and contain the backlog, I also enjoy telling them about how DHS FOIA has consistently improved our productivity, processing more cases per processor and releasing substantially more pages each year.   

5. What is the biggest challenge facing the FOIA program at your agency? 

It is difficult to say what is DHS’ biggest FOIA challenge. Like many agencies, the DHS FOIA program faces several systemic challenges that contribute to our backlog.  Our particular challenges include decentralization, an outdated FOIA Information Technology (IT) infrastructure, and resource constraints.  All of these challenges need to be addressed in order to ensure that the DHS FOIA program is set up for success in the long-run and has the capacity to meet public demand for our services.  

In March 2020, we published a three-year blue-print for addressing these challenges and responsibly reducing and containing the DHS FOIA backlog.  Whereas most backlog reduction plans rely on short-term solutions like increasing resources and/or contract support, our plan holistically addresses our challenges and lays out strategies to improve and modernize our operations.  I am proud of the thoughtful approach the plan takes and am happy to provide the high-level support and oversight necessary to ensure that it is implemented as intended.    

6. What would you like requesters to understand about your agency FOIA program/process?

One of the defining features of the DHS FOIA program is the scale of our operations.  As the Department of Justice (DOJ) pointed out in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Summary of Annual FOIA Reports, DHS was responsible for almost half (49%) of all responses to FOIA requests in the federal government.  Several of our FOIA programs, including the Privacy Office, regularly receive more requests on average per month than many Departments receive in a year.  Please know that we are making every effort to respond to your requests in a timely fashion, but sometimes it may take us time to complete our work and send you records.  If you ever have any issues with a FOIA request, I encourage you to reach out to the Component FOIA Officer or Public Liaison.  In light of our oversight responsibilities of the DHS FOIA program, the Privacy Office FOIA Public Liaison is always happy to assist you.  

The Council’s agenda for the October 14 meeting includes a discussion by Michael Sarich of the Veterans Health Administration and Eric Stein of the State Department, co-chairs of the Council’s Technology Committee. OGIS Director Alina M. Semo will update on OGIS activities, including some of the recommendations from the 2018-2020 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee. OIP Director Bobak Talebian will discuss new guidelines for the 2021 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. This discussion will be followed by a Q & A session, and there will also be an opportunity for the public to offer their comments. We hope to “see” you there!