Dispute Resolution Training for Agencies

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Are you looking for a unique training opportunity for your agency’s FOIA staff, one that will improve communications within your FOIA program and with FOIA requesters? If so, now is a great time to schedule 2019 Dispute Resolution Training for FOIA Professionals for your agency.

OGIS offers our training program twice yearly to any interested FOIA professional, and those sessions fill up as quickly as they are announced. Additionally, we offer training sessions to individual agencies as our schedule allows. This free, daylong training session helps FOIA professionals develop valuable communication skills for preventing and resolving FOIA disputes. Attendees also learn strategies for working with difficult people and ways to collaborate with OGIS to resolve FOIA disputes that seem intractable. These skills and strategies help attendees improve their interactions with FOIA requesters as well as colleagues within their agencies.

But don’t take our word for it—here is what previous attendees have to say:

  • “It will be applied to my daily work.”
  • “I will deal with requesters in a more patient manner.”
  • “This information will be very useful when communicating with requesters and narrowing the scope of voluminous requests.”
  • “I’ll try to pick up the phone more often to call requesters.”
  • “I’ll be more empathetic to those caught in the middle of FOIAs.”

If you are interested in providing OGIS training for your FOIA staff, we would love to hear from you. We ask agencies to provide a minimum of 15 participants (and we can train up to 25 at a time). To schedule a training session in Fiscal Year 2019, please contact us.

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International Day for Universal Access to Information 2018

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In November 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a resolution declaring September 28th of every year as International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). “The universal right to information is essential for societies to function democratically and for the well-being of each individual,” UNESCO wrote in its proclamation. “Freedom of information or the right to information is an integral part of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.” UNESCO hopes that by observing IDUAI each year, more countries will adopt freedom of information (FOI) legislation, develop policies for multilingualism and cultural diversity in cyberspace, and ensure that this effort is accessible to all.

On September 28, 2018, UNESCO, in conjunction with the World Bank and the Government of Colombia, organized IDUAI for the Latin American Region at the University of Los Andes Law Center in Bogotá; OGIS Director Alina M. Semo was honored to participate in this event. The day-long symposium highlighted three main topics:

  • Challenges for the Implementation of FOI Laws;
  • Access to Information, Memory and Truth; and
  • Access to Information and Good Governance.

Those with a Facebook account can watch the entire program here; otherwise, you may access the agenda and other information about the program here.

Director Semo provided the keynote address for the first topic, titled Access to Information in the United States and Contemporary Challenges to the Freedom of Information Act. Director Semo took the audience on a brief journey through the evolution of access to information in the United States through the lens of the FOIA, explained OGIS’s role in the FOIA process, and discussed some of the tools OGIS uses to improve implementation of the law. She ended the presentation by laying out four big challenges to implementation of a robust access to information regime:

  • providing access to records that are not created or stored in ways that make them particularly easy to locate or release;
  • the wide variety of records formats at U.S. government agencies;
  • finding and keeping talented employees in FOIA; and
  • an ever-growing volume of electronic records.

We at OGIS salute UNESCO’s efforts to shed light on the importance of access to information, and we look forward to future IDUAI celebrations.

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Join Us Online for the November 29, 2018 FOIA Advisory Committee 

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If you cannot join us in person for the second meeting of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee’s 2018-2020 term on November 29, 2018, you can still join us via livestream.

The meeting, from 10 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. EST, will focus on records management. Representatives from several Offices of Inspectors General that have conducted audits or investigations into FOIA and/or records management will speak, as will Laurence Brewer, Chief Records Officer for the U.S. Government. Check out the complete agenda here.

The meeting is the second of the 2018-2020 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee, whose members are appointed by the Archivist of the United States and are tasked with studying FOIA across the government, soliciting public comments, and recommending to the Archivist improvements to FOIA.

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 gives thanks for…

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In this season of gratitude, we at OGIS would like to pause and give thanks for:

FOIA professionals: Our work resolving FOIA disputes and evaluating compliance brings us into contact with many FOIA professionals from many agencies.  We are thankful for how hard they work every single day to carefully balance the interests of disclosure with the interests of the Federal government to maximize disclosure and access to information to the extent possible.

The FOIA process: From estimated dates of completion to rolling releases to earnest efforts to narrow the scope of requests, we are grateful for examples of the FOIA process working as it should. This includes the administrative review process, which allows agencies to take a fresh look at initial processing decisions and often provides additional explanations of the agency’s actions.

FOIA geeks: Yes, it’s true, there are those who obsess over the FOIA and not just those of us at OGIS. We are grateful for our collaborative relationship with our colleagues at the Office of Information Policy at DOJ. We are grateful for members of civil society groups and academics who devote countless research and advocacy hours to our favorite Federal statute. We are grateful for organizations like the American Society of Access Professionals who make space for the free flow of new ideas. We are grateful for the special people from both inside and outside of government who have and are donating their time on the FOIA Advisory Committee, collaborating on ways to improve the FOIA process.

OGIS supporters: To the Archivist of the United States to our Federal agency and Congressional colleagues, and to the entire requester community, we are grateful for your support.

Above all, we are very grateful to all of the people who think and care about FOIA, advise OGIS and spur us on to tackle hard topics, all with the goal of making FOIA work better—and that includes you, our blog readers. Wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving!

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Next FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting: November 29, 2018

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The intersection of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and records management will be the focus of the next FOIA Advisory Committee meeting on November 29, 2018, in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

The meeting, from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., is the second of the 2018-2020 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee, whose members are appointed by the Archivist of the United States and are tasked with studying FOIA across the government, soliciting public comments, and recommending improvements to the Archivist. This is the third two-year term of the Committee, established by the National Archives and Records Administration in 2013 under the Open Government National Action Plan 2.0. The Committee’s members, all experts in FOIA, come from both inside and outside the government. OGIS’s Director chairs the Committee and NARA staff administratively support its work.

At their inaugural meeting in September, Committee members established subcommittees around three broad topics to explore over the next two years. The subcommittees are Records Management, Time/Volume, and Vision.

At the November 29th meeting, the Committee will hear from representatives of several Offices of Inspectors General that have conducted audits or investigations into FOIA and/or records management. Next, Laurence Brewer, Chief Records Officer for the U.S. Government will update the Committee on records management issues. Finally, the Committee will hear updates from each subcommittee. OGIS will also provide 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.

If you are interested in attending the November 29th meeting, please register online. We hope to see you there.

Posted in About OGIS, Electronic records, FOIA Advisory Committee, OGIS events, Ombudsman, Records Management, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OGIS Deputy Director Martha Murphy Shares FOIA Federal Agency Perspective at CUNY Environmental Law Conference

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Last Saturday I represented OGIS and the National Archives and Records Administration at a conference on environmental Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issues at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law in Queens, New York. The conference, co-sponsored by the CUNY School of Law, CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and CUNY’s Law Center for Urban Environmental Reform, brought together lawyers, journalists, public advocates, students and a couple FOIA agency representatives to discuss using FOIA for environmental advocacy, litigation, and journalism. Throughout the day, seasoned FOIA requesters offered advice based on their experiences with the FOIA process.

I participated in both a breakout session for FOIA beginners and a panel that focused on the perspective of agencies responding to FOIA requests. Patrick Foster, a lawyer with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, joined me for the panel representing the state perspective. Our moderator was Professor Andrea McArdle from the CUNY School of Law. I explained the role of OGIS and challenges faced by Federal FOIA programs, and gave tips for navigating the Federal FOIA process; Patrick Foster focused on the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In addition to explaining the nuts and bolts of the FOIA administrative process, the panel focused on the importance of communication and the advantages of conducting research prior to submitting a request whether at the federal, state or local level.

While the context of environmental FOIA requesters is unique, the challenges they described in navigating FOIA are similar to those OGIS hears frequently: difficulties with delays, navigating FOIAOnline and agency FOIA web pages, and how to craft a FOIA that can be managed and addressed in the simple queue. The advice given by experienced requesters was also applicable to FOIA generally, including developing a rapport and communicating with FOIA officers; keeping FOIA requests small and specific; and  doing research before filing a FOIA request by looking at what has been released to other requesters via FOIA reading rooms, FOIA logs and what is posted through FOIAOnline.

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Throughout the day, artist Charlie LaGreca was working to capture the spirit and content of the conference. His final product is a great visualization of everything that was discussed.

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Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Ginger McCall

FOIA Act Advisory Committee Meeting

Today we present an interview with Ginger McCall, who recently became the Oregon Public Records Advocate. Ginger is in her third term on the FOIA Advisory Committee. Over the next year, we will interview other members of the Advisory Committee so that you can get to know them better.

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

I originally applied to serve on the Committee three terms ago because I felt that because this Committee has a mix of stakeholders and a variety of perspectives, it is uniquely positioned to evaluate FOIA processes and practices and make recommendations that can improve the implementation of an important statute. I really enjoy the opportunity to work with people from a mix of different professional backgrounds – folks on the government side, as well as the requester community.

I’ve reapplied now because I feel that FOIA is reaching a crisis point. I’ve seen, as a requester, a federal employee, and now a state employee, the way that public records laws are being strained under the demands of political polarization, hiring freezes, and the proliferation of electronic records. There is an urgency to deal with these problems now to ensure that FOIA continues to be a meaningful tool to promote transparency and oversight.

What do you hope to accomplish?

I’m really hoping that we can come up with some good ideas to improve the basic function of the FOIA. Many FOIA offices are really struggling under the strain of too little funding, lack of leadership support, large numbers of very voluminous requests, and lack of technological solutions. I hope that we can address these issues and craft proposals which will protect FOIA’s future.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

On the agency side, the biggest challenge is a lack of investment by Congress and agency leadership – specifically staffing, funding, and technological investment.

On the requester side, the biggest challenge is the small number of requesters who create disproportionately large and frequent requests without being cognizant of how those requests put on strains on agencies and create delays for other requesters.

Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.

When I joined the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in 2009, EPIC had just embarked on a campaign against the airport body scanners. As part of that campaign, we submitted a series of FOIA requests to the Department of Homeland Security. The FOIA documents we obtained allowed us to form a diverse coalition, craft a set of public policy proposals, and communicate to the media and the public why the body scanners were both invasive and ineffective. As a result, the agency was forced to change its policy and alter the technology. The scanners that you now see in airports have built-in privacy protections. Those protections are only there because of the FOIA documents EPIC obtained. This is the power of public records: the power to change nationwide policy.

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Mark Your Calendars

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Are you thinking ahead to Sunshine Week 2019 and wondering what OGIS has planned? Wonder no more—OGIS’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 calendar of activities is now available. The calendar provides a snapshot of the year ahead for OGIS, including public meetings, the release of issue assessments, and training opportunities.

Speaking of training opportunities, now is a great time to consider whether you are interested in customized dispute resolution training for the FOIA professionals at your agency. We are currently scheduling agency-specific training for the second quarter of FY 19, so if you would like to discuss this opportunity, please email us.

Opportunities abound in OGIS’s compliance program, as well. If your FOIA program is interested in OGIS’s unique collaborative compliance review process, please get in touch with us. We are currently scheduling agency compliance reviews for the second half of FY 19 and beyond.

FY 19 is shaping up to be an exciting year at OGIS—we hope to see you at one of our events.

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Reserve a Seat for the Upcoming Dispute Resolution Skills Training Session

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Calling all FOIA professionals! Registration is now open for the November 2nd session of our popular training, “Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals,” which will be held at the OGIS offices in downtown Washington, DC.

This free, daylong training session helps FOIA professionals develop valuable communication skills for preventing and resolving FOIA disputes. Attendees also learn strategies for working with difficult people and ways to collaborate with OGIS to resolve FOIA disputes that seem intractable. These skills and strategies help attendees improve their interactions with FOIA requesters as well as colleagues within their agencies.

Our training session, which is limited to Federal employees, has earned high marks from previous attendees. Seats fill up quickly, so reserve yours now.

We hope to see you on November 2!

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Wrap Up of October CFO Council Meeting

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The Chief FOIA Officers (CFO) Council met on October 4th to discuss the Final Report and Recommendations issued by the 2016-2018 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee and related guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP).  What follows are a few highlights from the presentation:

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero welcomed everyone to the William G. McGowan Theater, explained the important role with which Congress has tasked the CFO Council, and urged attendees to carefully examine the FOIA Advisory Committee’s April 2018 Final Report and Recommendations.

The Archivist also encouraged everyone to review the list of best practices identified in the Final Report to see if there are any strategies that may be useful for agencies to incorporate into their respective FOIA programs.

CFO Council Co-Chair and OGIS Director Alina M. Semo announced that the FOIA Advisory Committee’s first of seven 2018 recommendations to the Archivist has been implemented with the establishment of a CFO Council Technology Subcommittee. The Subcommittee will be co-chaired by Eric Stein, Department of State, and Michael Sarich, Veterans Health Administration, and already has six members, although Ms. Semo encouraged additional volunteers to join the Subcommittee. A kick-off meeting is planned for November at the Department of State.

Ms. Semo also announced that the 2018-2020 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee is underway. The first meeting, on September 6, 2018, included lots of brainstorming and participation from all Committee members. Ultimately, the Committee decided to form three subcommittees: Records Management, Vision, and Time/Volume, each of which will be co-chaired by a government and non-government member.

CFO Council Co-Chair and OIP Director Melanie Ann Pustay announced the recent release of deadlines for submission of agencies’ Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 Annual FOIA Reports, FY 2019 Quarterly FOIA Reports, and 2019 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. She also announced upcoming Annual FOIA Report Refresher Training to be held on October 9, 2018. In addition, Ms. Pustay noted that OIP recently published its training schedule for FY 2019.

Ms. Semo then presented the FOIA Advisory Committee’s suggested best practices from the 2018 Final Report and Recommendations, organized by ease of implementation. Overarching topics included improving the management of the FOIA process, enhancing career development for FOIA professionals, using technology to improve the FOIA process, and increasing accessibility of documents released under FOIA.

OIP Director Pustay followed with a presentation focused on four areas of OIP guidance that complemented the FOIA Advisory Committee’s more than 35 best practices, broken down into four broad categories: good communication with requesters, robust case management, proactive disclosures, and enhanced technology.

Congress has tasked the CFO Council with: (a) developing recommendations for increasing agency compliance and efficiency, including the development and use of common performance measures; (b) disseminating information about agency experiences, ideas, best practices and innovative approaches; and (c) identifying, developing and coordinating initiatives to increase transparency and compliance with the FOIA.  That is why the CFO Council serves as a natural and ideal forum for discussion of the work of the FOIA Advisory Committee.

Keep an eye out on the FOIA Ombudsman blog for future updates on the work of the CFO Council Technology Subcommittee, and for news of future CFO Council meetings.

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