Epidemic of FOIA Excitement at CDC-Atlanta

 

martha at cdcOGIS Deputy Director Martha Murphy and Mediation Team Lead Carrie McGuire visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia this week to participate in the Center’s third annual FOIA training summit. This special event brought together FOIA processors, FOIA coordinators, appeals staff and others to discuss FOIA issues of special interest. The FOIA fever was contagious!

Ms. Murphy delivered a powerful keynote that illustrated the summit’s theme, “FOIA Matters.” Her talk included examples of documents released through FOIA that have impacted policy decisions and changed the lives of individuals. Ms. McGuire participated in a panel discussion that explored the use of FOIA technology. In her comments, Ms. McGuire emphasized that good FOIA technology begins at the design stage with systems that are built to meet FOIA and records management requirements.

The training program continued with a discussion of FOIA Exemption 5 from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of General Counsel. CDC’s FOIA Director Roger Andoh closed the program by encouraging the attendees to consider the importance of their role in promoting government openness.

Whether your FOIA staff is large or you are part of a team that is small but mighty, we encourage you to set aside a day for training. OGIS staff is glad to participate in training summits or brainstorm on topics – please get in touch with us at ogis@nara.gov if you would like to discuss.

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Take a Lunch Break With OGIS

lunch breakIf you didn’t have a chance to attend either of OGIS’s recent live events, good news! Both the most recent meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee and OGIS’s Sunshine Week event are available online, so you can catch up with OGIS from the comfort of your desk—maybe even while you eat your lunch! Plus, OGIS was recently featured on a podcast, so you can catch up with the FOIA Ombudsman while you are on the go.

The March 20 FOIA Advisory Committee meeting included an academic snapshot of the administration of FOIA; updates from the Committee’s three subcommittees—Time/Volume, Vision, and Records Management; and an overview of OGIS’s work as the FOIA Ombudsman.

OGIS celebrated Sunshine Week 2019 with a half-day program that included a conversation between David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and Beryl A. Howell, Chief Judge, US District Court for the District of Columbia, as well as panel discussions about OGIS’s past, present and future, and the future of electronic record keeping. We were also joined by Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who shared their thoughts about the importance of FOIA.

Finally, OGIS Director Alina M. Semo was recently featured on the podcast Federal Drive with Tom Temin. You can listen to it online, or subscribe to the podcast through your favorite podcast app.

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Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Patricia Weth

Today we present an interview with Patricia Weth, Deputy Assistant General Counsel in the FOIA Branch of the National Labor Relations Board and a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee. This is part of a series of posts on the Committee, whose members are FOIA experts from inside and outside of government who are appointed by the Archivist.

Weth Photo 2-27-2019

Why did you seek to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee?

In my career, I have often benefited from collaborating with my colleagues on a variety of issues presented by certain requests as they often bring a different perspective to our agency’s processing and FOIA analysis. I wanted to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee because I loved the idea of collaborating with other individuals who wish to improve the FOIA process. I believe our work together will bring about positive improvements. Being on this Committee with other agency employees, educators, and representatives of the media and the requester community who share the compatible desire to work together for a common goal has been an inspirational and educational experience for me.

What do you hope to accomplish?

My hope is that this Committee will propose helpful recommendations that will streamline the FOIA process and provide agencies with the tools they need to meet their obligations under the FOIA.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

Many agencies lack the proper resources, such as staff and technology, to allow them to meet the statutory requirement that FOIA requests be completed within 20 working days. Many people—both within the Federal government and in the requester community—are unaware of the huge amount of time and energy it takes to search for records and then review and prepare the records for release. I was once told by a requester that all I had to do push a button. If fulfilling FOIA requests were that easy, I can tell you that I would have a lot less grey hair and there would be no such thing as agency backlogs.

Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.

I called a FOIA requester to get clarification on his request and to explain the types of agency records which he may be interested in obtaining. Upon introducing myself, the requester was so surprised that someone from the Federal government would telephone him regarding his FOIA request. During our discussion, he informed me that he appreciated my call and the information that I provided to him regarding the FOIA and my agency’s records. The conversation made me feel like I was doing good work. To this day, I think of this gentleman whenever I call FOIA requesters.

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Upcoming FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting–Join Us!

C13466-30Want to join us in person for the Wednesday March 20, 2019, meeting of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee? Midnight Sunday March 17, 2019—St. Patrick’s Day—is the deadline for registering to attend the meeting, to be held from 10 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. EDT in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Don’t live in the DC area—or can’t make it to the National Archives? We hope you’ll join us via live stream on the National Archives YouTube channel.

The meeting will include an academic snapshot of the administration of FOIA, updates from the Committee’s three subcommittees—Time/Volume, Vision, and Records Management; and an overview of OGIS’s work as the FOIA Ombudsman. Check out the complete agenda here.

FOIA Advisory Committee members are from both inside and outside of government, are appointed by the Archivist of the United States, and are tasked with studying FOIA across the government, soliciting public comments, and recommending FOIA improvements to the Archivist.

You can keep up with the Committee’s work be visiting the Committee’s webpage or reading this blog, FOIA Ombudsman.

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OGIS Fiscal Year 2018 Report Now Available

report-cover-march-2019This year—2019—we celebrate 10 years as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Ombudsman. Anniversaries have a way of sparking reflection on the past, present and future—the theme of our 2019 Report for Fiscal Year (FY) 2018. FY 2018 was our busiest yet. Among our activities, we

  • Handled 4,681 requests for assistance—from FOIA requesters and agencies alike.
  • Responded to our 15,000th request since we opened our doors.
  • Published five compliance assessments—two of agency FOIA programs; two resulting from FOIA questions asked in the government-wide Records Management Self-Assessment; and one FOIA issue assessment.
  • Released our first advisory opinion (on agency communication with requesters).
  • Published our first FOIA Ombuds Observer (on navigating FOIA to access immigration records).

FY 2018 also saw the culmination of the second two-year term of the FOIA Advisory Committee. One of the Committee’s seven recommendations to the Archivist of the United States resulted in a legislative recommendation that we have included in our report—that Congress pass legislation to provide agencies with sufficient resources to comply with the requirements of both the FOIA and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, particularly with regard to proactive posting of large numbers of records. Our report details the challenges presented by the intersection of the two laws and offers several possible legislative options.

We hope you will take a few minutes to read our report. Let us know what you think.

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It’s Not Too Late to Register: Sunshine Week 2019!

Sunshine Logo 2019

If you would like to attend OGIS’s Sunshine Week event in person, there is still time to register!

OGIS will celebrate Sunshine Week 2019 on Monday, March 11 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the National Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater. We have planned an exciting program that will include a conversation between David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and Beryl A. Howell, Chief Judge of the US District Court for the District of Columbia. This Sunshine Week is particularly special since OGIS is also celebrating our 10th anniversary as the FOIA Ombudsman.

The free event will be open to the public. If you would like to join us in person, please register by midnight Wednesday, March 6. We will also livestream the event—please don’t register if you plan to join us online. For those who miss out, we also post video after the event (you can find video of our 2018 event here).

Our colleagues at the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Information Policy (OIP) are hosting their annual Sunshine Week Kick-off Celebration the morning of March 11. At this event, DOJ will honor FOIA professionals from across the government who have made extraordinary contributions to the field. Registration is required.

Speaking of your Sunshine Week calendar, the US Census Bureau will host a Sunshine Week event on Wednesday, March 13 from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. The title of this year’s program is “Taking Stock: Access to Information and Open Government Data.” Advanced registration for this event—which will take place in Suitland, Maryland—is required by Thursday March 7.

Sunshine Week is an annual nationwide celebration to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and access to information—values that are central to the mission of the National Archives. Launched by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) as a national initiative in 2005, Sunshine Week has been embraced by journalists, librarians, concerned citizens, civil society organizations, elected officials, and government employees as an opportunity to discuss the importance of open government and celebrate access, promote transparency collaboration and participation.

We look forward to seeing you at a Sunshine Week event!

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Mark Your Calendars: Wednesday, March 20, 2019 FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

An academic snapshot of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) administration will be the focus of the next FOIA Advisory Committee meeting on March 20, 2019, in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

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The meeting, from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., is the third of the 2018-2020 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee, which is tasked with studying FOIA across the government, soliciting public comments, and recommending to the Archivist of the United States improvements to FOIA administration.

Professors Khaldoun AbouAssi and Tina Nabatchi, of American University and Syracuse University, respectively, will present findings from their analysis of government-wide FOIA data that reveals trends in how FOIA is administered by Federal government agencies.

Also on the agenda are updates from the Committee’s three subcommittees—Time/Volume, Vision, and Records Management; an overview of OGIS’s work as the FOIA Ombudsman; and an update on the status of past recommendations from the two previous terms of the FOIA Advisory Committee. The meeting will conclude with a public comment period.

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. OGIS Director Alina M. Semo chairs the Committee and National Archives staff manages its work.

For those outside the DC area, the meeting will be live-streamed on the National Archives YouTube channel.  If you are interested in attending the March 20, 2019 meeting, please register.

We hope to see you there.

 

 

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Save the Date: Sunshine Week 2019!

Sunshine Logo 2019

Although Washington, DC, is facing the latest round of winter weather, we at OGIS are excited to announce our Sunshine Week 2019 event.

Sunshine Week is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information. Since the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) launched the initiative more than a decade ago, journalists, librarians, concerned citizens, civil society organizations, elected officials, and government employees alike have embraced the week as an opportunity to discuss the importance of open government. This Sunshine Week is especially exciting, since OGIS is also celebrating our 10th anniversary as the FOIA Ombudsman.

OGIS will kick off Sunshine Week 2019 on Monday, March 11th at the National Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater. We have planned an exciting program that begins with a conversation between Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero and Beryl A. Howell, Chief Judge of the U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The free event will be open to the public, both in person and via a live web stream. Those who wish to attend in person must register in advance. For those who cannot attend in person or virtually, we will post video after the event (you can find video of our 2018 event here).

Be sure to regularly check out this blog and follow us on Twitter (@FOIA_ombuds) for updates on this year’s Sunshine Week program and participants!

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Will You Be Our (FOIA) Valentine?

NARAValentinesIG4

The FOIA process, like any relationship, depends on good communications. In the spirit of the season, OGIS offers Valentines greetings to FOIA stakeholders who demonstrate good communication skills every day.

  • We love all hardworking FOIA professionals, but particularly those who pick up the phone to talk to requesters. While making a call is an investment of time, it is often the most efficient way to help a requester narrow the scope of their request.
  • FOIA requesters who submit targeted, narrow requests have our heart. The more broadly a request is written, the longer it will take an agency to respond (including search and processing), so consider timeframe, format, keywords, and other limiting factors. If you are not sure how to limit the scope of your request, reach out to the agency’s FOIA Public Liaison.
  • Good records managers are the “bee’s knees.” When records are maintained properly according to an updated schedule that is available to the public, requesters can make well-informed requests and FOIA processors can better locate the records they need.
  • Agencies that provide realistic estimated dates of completion, we choo-choo-choose you. Delays are an unfortunate part of the FOIA process, but providing requesters with an estimated date of completion is not only good customer service, it’s the law. 
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Catching up with OGIS

riders lining up

Congress has temporarily restored funding of appropriated activities, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) resumed normal operations as of January 28, 2019. We at OGIS returned to our offices this week to find more than 450 requests for assistance that accumulated during the shutdown. We have devoted  our time since returning to the office brainstorming how we can best meet this new challenge while continuing to handle work that remains outstanding from before the shutdown.

Over the coming weeks, we will respond to those who contacted us during the shutdown. We will also continue to review the submissions we receive each day, and work those pending in our queue. If you are waiting to hear from us, we ask for your patience as we do our best to catch up and keep up.

Of course, OGIS is not alone in returning to a mountain of work. Agencies—many of which already had a backlog of FOIA requests—continued to receive requests during the shutdown. If you have a pending FOIA request, we ask that you please be patient with agency FOIA professionals.

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