Q&A with OGIS’s New Director, Alina M. Semo

Alina Semo, Director of the Office of Government Information Services

Alina Semo, Director of the Office of Government Information Services

1)     Please tell us a little about yourself.

I am the product of parents who emigrated to the United States to avoid continued religious, artistic and professional persecution at the hands of the Communist Romanian regime.  In direct and indirect ways, the influences of my father, who made his living in classical music as a professional violinist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and my mother, an organic research chemist who worked at Johns Hopkins University for 30 years, have led me to where I am today.

My parents, grandmother and I arrived in New York City with only a few suitcases we could carry when I was nearly ten, eventually settling in Baltimore. I attended public junior high school and high school in Baltimore, and after graduation headed to the University of Maryland, College Park [GO TERPS!]. My intent when I began college was to transfer to Duke University to enroll in the pre-med program. Fate intervened, though, when my father, who was then the Associate Concertmaster with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, went on strike with the rest of the musicians’ union. Without a clear idea of how long the strike would last, I opted to save my parents money by staying at the University of Maryland.

During college, I abandoned pre-med in favor of a major in Government and Politics and developed an enduring interest in international human rights and the law.  During this time, I interned with the American Association for the Advancement of Science International Human Rights program, and worked on issues involving scientists world-wide whose human rights were being violated – much in the same way my mother faced persecution for her work while we lived in Romania.

At the urging of a college professor, I decided to attend Georgetown Law School and dabble in international human rights issues when time permitted.  After I graduated, I spent three years in private practice and realized I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do – which is to help people – and to make a difference.

For the last few decades, I have worked as a lawyer in the federal government. In my roles at the Department of Justice (DOJ), Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Archives I have been able to make a difference by not only helping out individual agencies and employees with their legal issues, but also by representing the broader interests of the American public.

2)     What was your first experience with FOIA?

During law school I worked as a law clerk at DOJ’s then Office of Information and Privacy (the office in now called the Office of Information Policy).  Before I began clerking for DOJ, I can honestly say I had not heard much – if anything – about FOIA.  I learned quickly, though, and had the opportunity to collaborate on a section of the DOJ’s FOIA/Privacy Act Guide that explains an agency’s responsibility to create a Vaughn Index during litigation. The last time I checked, the foundation I helped lay for that section is still there today.

3)     You have played an important role in a number of lawsuits that related to access to government records. How do those experiences inform your views of FOIA and the role of OGIS?

I often like to joke about the fact that I had some hand in most of the cases discussed in today’s DOJ FOIA Guide– for better or for worse.  While some lawyers might think of FOIA as a boring part of the law, it has myriad legal – and factual – ramifications. And while I enjoy digging into the facts of a FOIA case and arguing points of law, I am a conciliator at heart.  I have settled many cases – either bilaterally or through mediation.

It’s amazing what can happen when you get parties to sit down across the table from each other, and really talk about what they each want and need.  Yes, sometimes talks break down, parties get entrenched.  But it is possible to reach successful resolutions – where everyone walks away feeling as though they got a partial (if not full) victory.

I also believe there are a number of lawsuits that are needlessly filed; if only communication had been better between the requester and the agency – a complaint could have been avoided.  That’s where OGIS was originally designed to come in; before litigation commences, to see if a reasonable resolution can be reached between and among the parties.

4)     What motivated you to become the federal FOIA Ombudsman?

The founding OGIS Director, Miriam Nisbet, has been a strong presence in my professional career for many years.  Miriam and I have a long history of our professional paths continuing to cross.

Miriam took the congressional mandate of the 2007 Open Government Act and ran with it by establishing and nurturing a highly successful FOIA Ombudsman shop with limited resources.  She devoted countless hours to national and international outreach to get the word out about OGIS and its important role in the federal FOIA scheme.  She encouraged me to apply when the Director position became vacant earlier this year.  I wanted very much to continue the wonderful work that Miriam has done, and to continue to have OGIS play an integral role in the FOIA community.  The 2016 FOIA Improvement Act has given OGIS even more to do, so I will be busier than ever leading a staff who is committed to both FOIA mediation and compliance issues.

Posted in About OGIS, Message from the Director, National Archives and Records Administration | 1 Comment

FOIA Improvement: Improving Agency FOIA Regulations

Note: This entry is another in our series of occasional blog posts updating our efforts to implement new provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law by President Obama on June 30, 2016.

Regular readers of the Federal Register may have noticed a recent spike in notices related to amendments of agency FOIA regulations. This increase is due to agencies hurrying to update FOIA regulations before the end of calendar year 2016, as directed by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.

In addition to requiring that agencies update their FOIA regulations to reflect the FOIA Improvement Act’s changes, Congress also required that the updated regulations “include procedures for engaging in dispute resolution services through the FOIA Public Liaison and the Office of Government Information Services.” We have reviewed many updated FOIA regulations since the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 was passed. While many of them include language regarding the availability of dispute resolution services – either via the FOIA Public Liaison or OGIS, we have seen an increasing number of revised regulations that do not reference OGIS’s dispute resolution services as a non-exclusive alternative to litigation in the administrative appeals section of their regulations.  Neither the FOIA statute nor the 2016 amendments explicitly compel agencies to do so.  Nevertheless, OGIS has made this recommendation to all agencies as a best practice, consistent with guidance from the Department of Justice (DOJ).

helpAs we have previously explained, the FOIA Improvement Act expands OGIS’s role in the FOIA process. Congress now requires that agencies alert requesters of our dispute resolution services at two distinct points in the FOIA process—first, when the agency makes an adverse initial determination, and second if the agency needs more than ten (10) additional days to process a request in the case of “unusual circumstances.” (The law defines “unusual circumstances” as the need to search for and collect records from field offices, the need to search, collect and review a voluminous amount of records, or the need to consult with another agency or multiple components within the same agency,).

Requesters should also be informed of our dispute resolution services in the agency’s final appeal response letter as an alternative to filing suit in federal court. FOIA provides the right to file a suit in a federal district court if the requester is dissatisfied with an agency’s response after the administrative appeals process has been exhausted. In 2007, Congress provided requesters with another option after the administrative appeals process by creating OGIS as a “non-exclusive alternative to litigation” (5 U.S.C. § 552(h)(3)). In light of this role, the DOJ Office of Information Policy (OIP) encourages agencies to include a standard paragraph about OGIS in their final appeal response letters; and(the appeals section of OIP’s template for agency model regulations also recommends inclusion of OGIS’s dispute resolution services.

As OGIS continues to regularly review and comment on proposed FOIA regulations and amendments, we will continue to suggest explicit reference to  OGIS in the appeals section of agency regulations. If you would like the chance to review and comment on proposed FOIA regulations, you may wish to subscribe to the Federal Register and set up alerts for terms like “FOIA” and “Freedom of Information Act.” This will ensure that you never miss a chance to make your voice heard as new regulations are proposed.

Posted in Best practices, Regulations, Review | Leave a comment

OGIS Releases Compliance Assessment of DHS FOIA Policy Office

dhs_reports_pageWe are happy to announce the release of our latest FOIA compliance assessment – the Privacy Office of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This office, which is led by the agency’s Chief Privacy & FOIA Officer, issues FOIA guidance to DHS’s components, monitors component performance, and issues required reports. Like our previously released assessments, this report is based on interviews of key FOIA staff and a review of FOIA policy and documents. What makes this report a little different is that it also includes observations made during our compliance assessments of the FOIA programs at six DHS components. We took this approach in recognition of the unique role that the Chief Privacy & FOIA Officer has in leading DHS’s FOIA program.

FOIA requires agency Chief FOIA Officers to:

  • support efficient and appropriate compliance with FOIA and make recommendations as necessary to improve implementation;
  • provide oversight of FOIA operations by monitoring implementation and reporting to the Attorney General as required; and
  • support customer service by taking certain steps to improve public understanding of FOIA.

We found that the DHS Privacy Office is meeting these requirements by providing targeted services to components and providing them with guidance on FOIA policy issues. The Privacy Office monitors component performance throughout the year and prepares required reports. The Privacy Office further supports the work of the components by investing in information technology that helps the 22 agencies within the Department to be more responsive and assist requesters in understanding the process.

Our report also notes varying degrees of awareness of, and adherence to, DHS FOIA policies among the reviewed components. We recommend that the DHS Privacy Office adopt standard procedures for its guidance – similar to those used by the Office of Information Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice – to address these deficiencies.

Posted in Review | 1 Comment

Planning is Underway for Sunshine Week 2017 at the National Archives

sw2017It’s wintery outside, but we at OGIS are busy planning Sunshine Week 2017 at the National Archives! Mark the afternoon of Monday, March 13, 2017 on your calendars and plan to join us in the William G. McGowan Theater for a celebration of sunshine and open government.

2016’s Sunshine Week  at the National Archives event attracted nearly 400 attendees, including government employees, representatives of civil society organizations, journalists, and interested members of the public. We hope 2017 will be even bigger. Sunshine Week 2017 at the National Archives is free and open to the public, both in person and via a live web stream; for those who miss out, we also post video after the event (check out the video of our 2016 event here).

Sunshine Week 2017 at the National Archives will include an update on OGIS’s activities and reports over the past year from OGIS’s new Director, Alina M. Semo. There will also be opportunities to share your thoughts about our activities and how to improve the FOIA process.

Do you have a topic that you would like to see on our Sunshine Week 2017 agenda? Let us know on Twitter or email ogis@nara.gov!

Posted in Sunshine Week 2016, Sunshine Week 2017 | 1 Comment

Check out the FOIA Advisory Committee’s Meetings on YouTube


YouTube and the National Archives Catalog both host their fair share of cute cats. (NARA Identifier 175914)

It turns out that you can find something other than great cat videos on YouTube: videos of all of the past meetings of the FOIA Advisory Committee!

You can find all of the videos, including footage of the latest meeting on October 25, on a playlist on the National Archives’ YouTube account. Check out Part 1 of the meeting to see a presentation from the U.S. Access Board and the General Services Administration about Federal accessibility requirements for all material that is posted on government websites and hear the Committee discuss how these requirements intersect with agency efforts to make available to the public more information released under FOIA. Part 2 of the video includes the Committee’s discussion about the issues its members plan to address during its two-year term. The Committee decided to set up subcommittees to address proactive disclosure and accessibility requirements; search for records; and resources and efficiencies.

Created in May 2014 as part of the second United States Open Government National Action Plan, the FOIA Advisory Committee works to foster dialog between the administration and the requester community, solicit public comments, and develop consensus recommendations for improving FOIA administration and proactive disclosures.

The National Archives also posts videos of many of the events held in the William G. McGowan Theater, including our March 2016 event celebrating open government, Sunshine Week 2016 at the National Archives. We hope that you will take some time to browse the National Archives’ offerings and let us know if you find a new favorite video!

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Review | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, Customer service, FOIA Public Liaisons | Leave a comment

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