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?

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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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Freedom (of Information) Rings at COGEL 2018

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The Council on Governmental Ethics Laws (COGEL) held its 40th annual conference earlier this month in Philadelphia, PA. COGEL is the preeminent organization of government ethics administrators, and its members work in the fields of governmental ethics, freedom of information (FOI), elections, lobbying and campaign finance. Members include governmental entities (state, local, and foreign) educational institutions, law firms and corporations.

OGIS was once again invited to participate on the FOI training track, and OGIS Director Alina Semo and OGIS Mediation Team Lead Carrie McGuire were honored to participate.

First, Ms. McGuire participated on a lively panel focused on discussing requests for voluminous records: “They Want HOW Many Pages? Voluminous FOI Requests.” Her co-panelists brought perspectives from both the agency and the requester side, and included individuals with state and local FOI experience as well as the Canadian national and provincial governments. The panelists shared strategies for working with requesters who file large requests, as well as tips for processing those requests.

The afternoon panel, “FOI Update: Surveying the Legislative & Litigation Landscape,” on which Ms. Semo participated,  included a representative from Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission Staff, and the Assistant Commissioner, Tribunal Services, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada. In her presentation, Director Semo reviewed trends in Federal FOIA litigation in the last year, and also described OGIS’s role in the FOIA process.

OGIS salutes COGEL on its 40th anniversary and the important role it plays in providing a forum for those who work in the government ethics, elections, FOI, lobbying and campaign finance spaces at all levels of government.

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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…

turkey truman

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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