Almost a year ago we published our report on recommendations to improve the transparency of the use of “still interested” letters to administratively close FOIA requests and reduce requester frustration with the practice. Our recommendations were based on findings of an in-depth review of historical annual FOIA report data and interviews with selected FOIA programs regarding their policies and practices.
For those of you who are not familiar with them, still interested letters is a generic phrase used to refer to correspondence from an agency asking a requester to respond by a certain date if he or she would still like the agency to process a particular request (i.e., “are you still interested in getting a response to this request?”) that has been pending in the agency’s backlog for a period of time. Our review of the use of these letters found that while a very small percentage of requests are closed each year using still interested letters, the available data does not capture the irritation that the practice causes for requesters – particularly if the agency provides the requester with only a few days to respond before the request is closed, despite the fact that the agency’s response to the FOIA request has been delayed for a year or longer. We also noted a lack of transparency regarding the use of these letters to close out FOIA requests.
In our report, we recommended that OGIS take two steps: first, we recommended that we continue to evaluate the use of still interested letters as part of our agency compliance assessment program. Since our report’s release, we noted issues with the use of still interested letters in our report on the United States Secret Service’s FOIA program, and recommended that the Secret Service take steps to bring the use of these letters in line with guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice that limits the use of these letters. The Secret Service FOIA staff concurred with our recommendation, and reports that it has since re-enforced the appropriate use of still interested letters and plans to provide additional training to staff on the proper use of these letters.
We also recommended that we bring potential abuse of these letters to the attention of appropriate agency officials as necessary. Shortly after the release of our report, we were alerted by requesters to their continued use by the State Department FOIA staff, and brought this issue to the attention of the State Department’s Chief FOIA Officer, Joyce Barr. In June, Ms. Barr responded to our letter to let us know about the steps the State Department is taking to bring its use of these letters into compliance with the Department of Justice’s guidance on their use.
We continue to be interested in how agencies are using still interested letters. We are asking for your help and feedback to better understand how agencies are currently using these letters. If you have received a still interested letter from an agency in the last year, please email us a copy of that letter to email@example.com, along with a brief explanation of the circumstances surrounding the letter (i.e., the nature of your original request, how long you waited until you received a still interested letter, and whether you were ever contacted by telephone or email directly by the agency) or tweet to us about it at @FOIA_Ombuds.
RSVP to join the audience for our first annual Open Meeting and share your views. NARA Photo by Jess Deibert.
We hope you are planning to join us for our first annual Open Meeting on Thursday, April 20th in the William G. McGowan Theater! If you cannot attend in person, you can still watch all of the action via the livestream on YouTube.
As we noted in our blog post announcing the meeting a few weeks ago, the meeting is intended to provide the public with an update on the office’s activities, and give interested persons an opportunity to present oral or written statements. You can also submit written statements to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we outlined in our Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Annual Report, the passage of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 had a profound impact on OGIS. We are excited to hear your thoughts about or expanded role and visibility in the FOIA process, and how we can better carry out our dispute resolution and compliance functions.
The Open Meeting is scheduled to run from 9:00 a.m. to 9:45 a.m., with a majority of the time reserved for public comments. There is no need to sign up to submit comments, but you do need to RSVP to attend the meeting.
If you are interested, we hope you will also stick around to watch the FOIA Advisory Committee meeting beginning at 10 a.m. During the meeting, Committee members will provide updates on the ongoing work of the Committee’s three subcommittees: Search; Efficiencies and Resources; and Proactive Disclosure.
It will come as no surprise to our regular readers when we say that the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 has resulted in substantial changes to OGIS’s operations. As we have talked about in a few blog posts, OGIS now has an expanded role in providing dispute resolution throughout the FOIA process. The amendments have also strengthened our mandate to review agency FOIA compliance and to identify strategies to improve compliance.
Under the amended statute, requesters are given information about the availability of dispute resolution services from agency FOIA Public Liaisons and OGIS at several stages in the administrative process. This requirement had an immediate and dramatic impact on our caseload: our recently-released Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report described a 142-percent increase in demand for our services in the last quarter of FY 2016 compared to the number of cases opened during the same period in FY 2015. The jump in our caseload has continued during FY 2017: before the end of the first half of FY 2017, we opened nearly twice as many cases than we did during all of FY 2016.
Our new handout includes a chart outlining the kinds of assistance we can provide versus agency FOIA Public Liaisons.
As we work on these new cases, we have observed that requesters are often confused about who they should contact for assistance, and they appear to not understand our role vis-à-vis the role of agency FOIA Public Liaisons. For example, we have had situations where requesters have contacted us instead of filing an appeal, or attempted to file an appeal with us rather than the agency.
To better explain OGIS’s role in the process, and the types of assistance that we can offer requesters, we have published a new handout. The handout, which is available on the OGIS Toolbox in the Resources section of our website, clearly describes Who We Are, What We Do, and how to get in contact with us. The back of the handout gives a brief description of the kinds of assistance you can expect to receive from us versus an agency FOIA Public Liaison before you file a request, during the FOIA process, and once the administrative appeal process has concluded.
If you have any suggestions for how we can better serve our customers, we hope to see you at our April 20th Annual Open Meeting in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives. As we announced last week, during the public meeting, we will provide an overview of our reviews and reports; the public will also be able to submit oral and written statements. Learn more and RSVP via Eventbrite to attend. If you are unable to attend in person, we will be livestreaming the meeting on the National Archives’ YouTube Channel. Use this YouTube link to watch the meeting beginning at 9 am.
Deliberations during the FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting at the National Archives in Washington, DC on July 21, 2016. Photo by Brogan Jackson.
Mark your calendars to join us in the William G. McGowan Theater in the National Archives’ downtown DC location on Thursday, April 20th for two events!
The day will kick off with OGIS’s first public meeting beginning at 9 am. This meeting (which is a new requirement created by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016) is intended to provide the public with an update on the office’s activities, and give members of the public an opportunity to present oral or written statements. You can get a preview of our reports and other work over the last year by reading our recently-released Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report. Register to attend the event via Eventbrite and please contact Amy Bennett at email@example.com or 202-741-5782 with any questions about the event.
After a short break, we will re-convene at 10 am EDT for the next scheduled meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee. During the meeting, co-chairs of the Committee’s three subcommittees – Search; Efficiencies and Resources; and Proactive Disclosure and Accessibility – will present updates on their work. The agenda (draft agenda will be posted on this page soon) also includes a special presentation on the use of e-discovery tools to locate records that are responsive to a FOIA request. Register via Eventbrite to join us in person.
If you cannot join us in person, both meetings will be livestreamed via the National Archives’ YouTube Channel. Be sure to check out the Events tab on our website for updates and follow @FOIA_Ombuds for a link to the broadcast.
Join us to sharpen your dispute resolution skills on April 18! (NARA Identifier 596401)
Did you know that dispute resolution skills can help you improve communication with not just FOIA requesters, but also with your agency colleagues, and even your friends and family? Register today for our April 18th Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training session, where you can get hands-on experience with these valuable tools.
This training is intended to teach FOIA professionals practical communication skills to help them understand and resolve disputes. We also give training participants a chance to test drive their skills and fine-tune their approach through activities and a role-playing exercise.
Registration for these sessions always fills up fast. You can sign up for the session using Eventbrite.
We also offer agency-specific training. If you are a FOIA professional interested in having us conduct a training session for your agency, please contact Carrie McGuire at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (202) 741-5774
The Secret Service protects the President’s limousine during the 1997 Presidential Inaugural Parade. (NARA Identifier 6520033)
In late February, the United States Secret Service (USSS) FOIA sent us a letter responding to the 12 recommendations we made in our compliance assessment report of their FOIA program. In the letter, USSS reports that they concur with each of our recommendations and explain the steps that are underway to strengthen the FOIA program and improve FOIA compliance.
USSS reports that they are using their FOIA processing and tracking system as a management and quality assurance tool, and are reporting information about the number of pages processed each week to management to highlight the FOIA workload. The FOIA program is also working with the USSS Performance Management Team in their Office of Human Resources to develop new performance measures for FOIA staff. They are also developing a data-driven backlog reduction plan to reduce the current backlog by 10 percent.
USSS also reports that they have taken a number of steps to address technical issues with their FOIA processing and tracking system that were impacting the FOIA program’s productivity and efficiency. In particular, the USSS reports that they have invested in increased technical support from a contractor to stabilize the system and are providing the FOIA program with in-house technical support. USSS also reports that they are exploring how to provide requesters with information about the status of their requests online.
USSS has also provided us with information about what they are doing to help improve their communication with requesters. Notably, USSS reported that they have developed template letters to provide requesters with an update on the status of particularly old requests and to describe why certain material is exempt from disclosure. USSS also reports that they are re-enforcing the appropriate use of “still interested” letters with the staff and plan to provide additional training to the staff on the proper use of “still interested” letters pursuant to current Department of Justice guidance.
We are excited to hear about all of USSS’ efforts to strengthen their FOIA program, and look forward to continuing to work with agencies to ensure the effective implementation of FOIA. We have closed all 12 OGIS recommendations in light of the USSS’ response.
In his welcoming remarks at Monday’s Sunshine Week celebration at the National Archives (video), the Archivist of the United States noted the substantial effort our agency has put towards improving open government over the last few years, and noted that there is – of course – a lot of work left to do. Our newly-released Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Annual Report shows that OGIS agrees with that sentiment.
FY 2016 was a particularly exciting time for OGIS: our mediation and compliance programs continued to grow, and the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 increased our role and visibility in the FOIA process. We also welcomed the second term of the FOIA Advisory Committee and the establishment of the Chief FOIA Officers Council, and organized the National Archives’ inaugural Sunshine Week event in the William G. McGowan Theater.
The passage of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 had a profound impact on OGIS. Our dispute resolution program’s caseload has grown steadily over time, but in the fourth quarter of 2016—after the passage of the FOIA Improvement Act—requests for our services grew by 142 percent over the same period in FY 2015. We are working to ensure that we can continue to meet the incredibly diverse needs of our customers.
We hope you enjoy reading through the report. If you have any thoughts on our activities or suggestions for how to improve our work, we want to hear from you! An hour before the next FOIA Advisory Committee meeting on April 20, 2017, at 9:00 am, OGIS will host our first public meeting to gather input on our activities. Be sure to watch this blog and follow us on Twitter to be reminded about the public meeting and ways in which you can participate.
Watch video of the event via YouTube!
Updated Final Agenda
1:00: Welcome by the Archivist of the United States
1:10: A Dialogue about Access to the Nation’s Treasures
- David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States
- Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress
2:00: FOIA After 50
- Tom Blanton, Director, National Security Archive
- Ralph Nader, Consumer Advocate and Author
- Lucy Dalglish, Dean, University of Maryland College of Journalism
- Thomas M. Susman, Director of Governmental Affairs for the American Bar Association and Founding President of the D.C. Open Government Coalition (Moderator)
3:15: Recorded Remarks
- Chairman Jason Chaffetz, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
- Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
3:30: Government at Your Fingertips
- Seamus Kraft, Executive Director, OpenGov Foundation
- Adam Marshall, Knight Litigation Attorney, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
- Michael Morisy, Co-Founder, MuckRock
- Pam Wright, Chief Innovation Officer, National Archives
- Miriam Nisbet, former Director of the Office of Government Information Services (Moderator)
OGIS is waiting by the phone to hear about your experience with the CFBP FOIA Program. (NARA Identifier 6922346)
Have you made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)? Our Compliance Team wants to hear about your experience.
Our compliance review process includes several methods to better understand how an agency FOIA program operates and what kind of challenges or opportunities it faces. In addition to interviewing the FOIA program’s management and surveying the program’s FOIA staff, we also review the requests we have received to mediate FOIA disputes with the agency, review data from Annual FOIA Reports and FOIA litigation against the agency to identify trends, and review a statistically significant sample of the agency’s FOIA case files from the previous fiscal year. We analyze the information to evaluate the agency’s compliance with the statute, highlight best practices, and make recommendations to improve the FOIA program (you can see all of our agency compliance assessments here).
As the Federal FOIA Ombudsman, we have always believed good customer service is a critical component of a successful FOIA program. In order to better understand the kind of customer service the agency provides, we think it is important to hear from the agency’s customers. If you have filed a FOIA request with CFBP and would like to tell us about your experience, please email email@example.com.
While our neighbors up north have been busy digging out from recent snowfalls, we have been busy thinking about the sunshine! Specifically, we have been putting together some exciting plans for Sunshine Week 2017.
As we have announced previously, we are hosting Sunshine Week 2017 at the National Archives during the afternoon of Monday, March 13. Be sure to watch this page for coming updates about our agenda and to find out how to join he audience!
The National Archives is not the only agency looking forward to this year’s celebration, though. Our friends at the Department of Commerce asked us to share their flyer announcing two events they are holding to mark the occasion. We hope you will plan to join them for their Sunshine Week Kickoff Event in the Research Library on Tuesday, March 14. Commerce will also be hosting speaker sessions on Wednesday, March 15 and Thursday, March 16 at the U.S. Census Bureau.
We also want to make sure that you have blocked off the morning of Monday, March 13 to join our colleagues at the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice (DOJ) for their Sunshine Week Kick Off Celebration. During the event, DOJ will honor FOIA professionals from across the government who have made extraordinary contributions to the field. To register to attending this event, e-mail your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov, with the subject “Department of Justice Sunshine Week 2017 Event.”
Is your organization or agency hosting a Sunshine Week celebration that you want us to know about? Be sure to let us know in the comments or connect with us on Twitter.