Let Us Help You: Seeking an OGIS Assessment

Your agency letterhead may not be this awesome, but don't let that stop you from asking for an OGIS assessment. (NARA Identifier )

Your agency letterhead may not be this awesome, but don’t let that stop you from asking for an OGIS assessment. (NARA Identifier 571199)

Interested in an assessment of your agency’s FOIA program conducted by a team of FOIA subject-matter experts? Wonder how your agency can be added to the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) assessment calendar? Let us help with some sample language for the Agency officials or Chief FOIA Officer at your agency to use in a letter to OGIS Director James Holzer.

But first, a little about our agency assessment program. Our assessments are holistic reviews of a FOIA program in which we interview employees and officials of the agency, review FOIA request and appeal files, conduct an online survey of FOIA processors, and study FOIA litigation against the agency, among other activities. At the end of our assessment, we publish a report that highlights best practices and areas for improvement. Our recommendations center around management, technology and communications.

We are in the midst of our seventh assessment after launching the program within two offices of our own agency, the National Archives and Records Administration, and completing assessments at four Department of Homeland Security components.

Interested? Use this sample language to send a letter on your agency letterhead to Director Holzer:

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program at [AGENCY/DEPARTMENT]. Specifically, I would like your Compliance Team’s assistance in improving our administration of FOIA by reviewing the program and providing us with a written report of the assessment results. I understand your reports focus on recommendations for improvement and observed best practices, and are designed to help agencies solve their biggest challenges.

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Help Improve the FOIA Process: An Update on the FOIA Advisory Committee

Volunteer to be a part of improving the FOIA process! (NARA Identifier 513691)

Volunteer to be a part of improving the FOIA process! (NARA Identifier 513691)

Do you love the public’s right to know? Do you want to work with people inside and outside of government to improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)? If you answered yes to both these questions, you might be just the person we are looking for to join the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee!

Last week we announced that we are seeking nominations for two-year appointments to the FOIA Advisory Committee. The Committee’s original two-year charter expires in May 2016, and we anticipate renewing the charter for another two-year term. As described in the announcement, we are looking for committee members who represent a wide range of views and interests, including large and small Federal agencies, requesters from different fee categories, historians, journalists, academics and nonprofit organizations that advocate on FOIA issues. Self-nominations are welcome. To apply, please email foia-advisory-committee@nara.gov the following information by April 30, 2016:

  • Your name, title, and relevant contact information (including phone, fax, and email address);
  • If nominating someone else, the nominee’s name, title, and relevant contact information, and the Committee position for which you are submitting the nominee;
  • A short biographical paragraph about the nominee (fewer than 250 words), summarizing their/your resume´ or otherwise highlighting the contributions they/you would bring to the Committee; and
  • Your/the nominee’s resume´ or curriculum vitae.

Even as we recruit members for the Committee’s next term, we want to remind you that current Committee members are hard at work developing consensus recommendations to improve the FOIA process. Please mark your calendars for April 19, 2016, to join committee members for the last meeting before the current Committee’s charter expires. During the meeting, we expect for members to further discuss and vote on a recommendation to Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) update its 1987 guidelines on FOIA fees. Professor Margaret B. Kwoka of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law will also present her recent paper on the use of FOIA by commercial requesters. Be sure to watch this blog and follow us on Twitter for updates about the meeting and how to register to attend.

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee | 1 Comment

Fiscal Year 2015 at the FOIA Ombudsman

Report Cover 2016Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 was very busy for the FOIA Ombudsman’s office. You can get a more complete picture of our work during FY 2015 by checking out the latest version of our Annual Report.

One major change to OGIS in FY 2015 was the appointment of a new Director, Dr. James Holzer. During the transition between the retirement of OGIS’s first Director, Miriam Nisbet, and Director Holzer coming on board in August 2015, we continued to offer mediation services and review FOIA compliance under the leadership of OGIS’s Deputy Director, Nikki Gramian.

Since we began offering mediation services in 2009, we have assisted customers in all 50 states and in 22 foreign countries. Our Mediation Program’s FY 2015 numbers are impressive: we received 1,160 requests for assistance with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issues—a 32-percent increase from FY 2014—and closed more than 1,200 cases; we also handled cases involving all 15 cabinet-level agencies and 34 percent of all other agencies. Be sure to read our FY 2015 Annual Report for more in-depth information about the types of cases we handled, where in the FOIA process requesters came to us, and more.

FY 2015 also marked the first full reporting period of OGIS’s Compliance Program. During the reporting period, our Compliance Team published assessments of the Special Access and FOIA program at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and of two Department of Homeland Security components: the Federal Emergency Management Agency and United States Coast Guard. (In late FY 2014, we published our first compliance report the FOIA program at NARA’s Office of General Counsel.) While we recognize that every agency FOIA program is unique in the records it processes and the type of requests it receives, we note that a FOIA program is set up for success if it properly manages its resources, uses technology appropriately, and communicates effectively with requesters. In the four compliance reports we published by the end of FY 2015, we made nearly 50 recommendations largely focused on improving management, the use of technology, and communication.

Our FY 2015 Annual Report also includes an update on the status of the recommendations we have made to improve the FOIA process, and reports on our efforts to better engage our stakeholders.

While FY 2015 was busy, FY 2016 is proving to be even more exciting! Be sure to keep up with our work by checking this blog (we regularly add new posts on Wednesdays) and following us on Twitter — @FOIA_Ombuds.

Posted in About OGIS, OGIS's Reports | 2 Comments

Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals Training Session: April 13, 2016

Plant the seeds of better communication with our training program.  (NARA Identifier 534118)

Plant the seeds of better communication with our training program. (NARA Identifier 534118)

Do you find yourself locked in disputes with FOIA requesters (or agency colleagues)? Would you like to learn constructive ways to resolve or avoid disputes in the future?

OGIS will present a training session designed to help FOIA professionals develop dispute resolution skills on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, at the Archives building on Constitution Ave between 7th and 9th streets NW in Washington, DC. This free, all-day session is appropriate for anyone in your agency who works with FOIA, including FOIA Public Liaisons, program managers, FOIA processors, FOIA attorneys and others. Participants will develop a working knowledge of Alternative Dispute Resolution techniques, learn how working with OGIS can help resolve disputes, practice active listening and good communication, and develop strategies for working with difficult people.

If you would like to register for this program, please register using Eventbrite at: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/dispute-resolution-skills-training-session-april-13-2016-tickets-22924276127. Space for this training program is extremely limited and the program fills up quickly, so please do not wait to register.

Posted in Alternative dispute resolution, Training | 3 Comments

OGIS Celebrates Sunshine Week 2016

We hope you are all having a great Sunshine Week! We are only halfway through the week, but already we have so much news to share.

Our Sunshine Week celebration started the week prior with a message from Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero to all of the National Archives staff reminding them that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is everyone’s responsibility. Such messages from Executive leadership is critical to ensuring that a FOIA program has the support to do its work, and the Archivist continues to lead by example on this issue.

On Friday, we joined our friends at the Newseum to celebrate National Freedom of Information Day at an event organized by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, OpenTheGovernment.org, the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week and the American Library Association. In his remarks, OGIS Director, James Holzer, explained how OGIS is in its best position yet to act as a change agent in FOIA, thanks to our robust mediation and compliance programs.

The sun shone even brighter on Monday, thanks to an event we co-hosted with the National Archives. In his opening remarks, Mr. Ferriero welcomed attendees to his “house” and emphasized how open government is fundamental to the National Archives and to OGIS’s work as the Federal FOIA Ombudsman.

We had a great time celebrating Sunshine Week at the National Archives. Here are some photos from the event!

We had a great time celebrating Sunshine Week at the National Archives. Here are some photos from the event!

Two panels explored the links between technology and open government. Experts from outside and inside government described their work using technology to make the government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Thought leaders—including Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Archon Fung, and Wikipedia expert Andrew Lih of American University—outlined possibilities for using technology to advance open government.

After a short break in the program, keynote speaker Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont spoke about the importance of FOIA and of keeping the public informed about what the government is doing. The program ended with a presentation by Richard L. “Dick” Huff, former Co-Director of the Office of Information and Privacy, , who shared updates on how the FOIA continues to evolve thanks to court interpretations.

Thanks to the help from the National Archives’ Exhibits staff, we were also able to display the copy of FOIA signed by President Johnson. It was great to see attendees stop by the display case to wish the FOIA happy 50th birthday in person, and to share its photo through social media during and after the event!

If you missed the event, you can watch the video here: https://ogis.archives.gov/outreach-events/sunshine-week-2016/sunshine-week-2016-video.htm. If you want to see what other events are going on during Sunshine Week, be sure to check out the listing at Sunshine Week.org.

If you are looking for other ways to help make the government more open, please check out the National Archives’ call for your ideas for our Open Government Plan 4.0. In the last National Archives Open Government Plan, OGIS committed to taking several steps to help improve openness – including setting up a robust compliance program and establishing the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee. If you have any suggestions for how to continue to increase transparency, participation, and collaboration through our work, please let us know!

Posted in National Archives and Records Administration, Open Government, Sunshine Week 2016 | 1 Comment

Federal Agencies Soak Up Sunshine Week


Be on the lookout for Sunshine Week celebrations at federal agencies. (NARA Identifier 7720840)

Sunshine Week is an annual celebration of open government that is embraced by journalists, non-profit organizations, citizens, and officials at every level of government. SunshineWeek.org has a full listing of the events going on around the country to celebrate the week of March 13-19, 2016, but Washington, DC, is the epicenter for Federal agencies’ celebrations. If you are in the area, we invite you to join in the fun; if you are not, many of these events are webcast.

The National Archives will host a Sunshine Week event in the William G. McGowan Theater on the afternoon of Monday, March 14 (RSVP here). Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero will kick off the event at 1 pm. Speakers, including Senator Patrick Leahy and experts from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, American University, 18F, the National Archives, MuckRock, GovTrack, New America Foundation, Demand Progress and more, will help us mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and discuss how technology can help open government.

The copy of the FOIA signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson will be on display during the program. If you are attending the event, please enter through the Special Events entrance on Constitution Avenue.

If you cannot join us for the event in person, it will also be available via live stream: be sure to check out our Sunshine Week 2016 event page to find the link.

How are other Federal agencies marking Sunshine Week?

Department of Justice (DOJ)

You can join other open government enthusiasts in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice at 10 am on Monday, March 14. DOJ will honor FOIA professionals from across the government who have made extraordinary contributions to the field. Learn about the awards and how to RSVP for the event here.

Department of Commerce

The U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Census Bureau are hosting a Sunshine Week Kickoff Event in the Commerce Auditorium on Tuesday, March 15.  Speakers include Department of Justice Office of Information Policy Director Melanie Pustay, who will discuss the 50th anniversary of the FOIA. RSVP via Eventbrite here.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

On Wednesday, March 23 from 1 – 2 pm, NRC will host a public briefing on its FOIA program. You can attend in person (Two White Flint North Auditorium; 11545 Rockville Pike; Rockville, MD) or join by phone (800-369-1849 Pass Code: 1289807). If you plan to attend the forum in person, you must RSVP to FOIA.Resource@nrc.gov by Wednesday, March 16, 2016.

Is your agency hosting a Sunshine Week event that is not listed here? Let us know about it in the comments!

Posted in Sunshine Week 2016 | Leave a comment

Celebrate Sunshine Week Early with OGIS Assessment of CBP and Our Annual Report

OGIS releases its assessment of the Customs and Bureau Protection FOIA program. (NARA Identifier 7855144)

OGIS releases its assessment of the Customs and Bureau Protection FOIA program. (NARA Identifier 7855144)

In advance of next week’s Sunshine Week celebration, we are pleased to announce the release of our assessment of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) compliance at Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

As our report shows, CBP made a number of changes to its FOIA program during the last three years that have improved the agency’s compliance with the law.  As a result of instituting management controls, investing in technology, and improving communication, CBP reduced its backlog in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 by 74 percent—from 34,307 requests to 9,024 requests. The changes greatly improved CBP’s responsiveness to requests: during FY 2015, CBP responded to most simple requests within the 20 days allowed under the law. These gains would not have been possible without support from CBP’s leadership and the efforts of CBP’s FOIA staff.

In addition to documenting the gains CBP’s FOIA program has made, the report makes recommendations to further improve CBP’s FOIA program.  You can find a checklist of all of our recommendations at the end of our report.

Report Cover 2016We are also happy to announce the release of OGIS’s FY 2015 Annual Report. This year’s report tells the story of the office’s 25-percent mediation caseload increase over FY 2014, and the first full year of OGIS’s Compliance Team. We hope you will check out the full report to learn more about our work and accomplishments.

Posted in About OGIS, Review | 2 Comments

Agencies Participating in New FOIA Compliance Self-Assessment Pilot Program

Thank you to FOIA professionals who have already participated in our recently launched Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) compliance self-assessment pilot program. Employees of more than half of the 61 agencies we contacted to announce the program have already taken the self-assessment survey. The survey closes on March 11, 2016, meaning agencies still have a little more than a week to participate!


As described in our blog post announcing its launch, the self-assessment online survey is designed to complement our agency assessment program. With 99 Federal departments and agencies processing FOIA requests, we are not able to assess individual programs as quickly as we would like. We asked FOIA professionals at the 61 departments and agencies that process 99.5 percent of all FOIA requests government-wide to participate in the self-assessment program.

Agencies that participate will not receive a score or ranking. The 23-question self-assessment survey is intended to help agency FOIA programs identify areas for improvement and give FOIA leaders information they need to address issues and develop and launch strategies to strengthen and improve their FOIA programs. So far, six of the 15 cabinet-level agencies have participated in the program:  the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, the Interior, and the Treasury. A variety of large, medium and small non-cabinet level agencies have also taken the survey.

Later this year, all of the survey participants will receive a copy of the survey noting the answers they provided, and an explanation for why the question was included in the survey. We will also provide agency FOIA leaders with an anonymized summary of the responses from their agency employees.

We plan to discuss the results of the self-assessment program during Sunshine Week 2017 and share any government-wide trends we identified.

Posted in Review | Leave a comment

Have a FOIA Question? We are Here to Help

One of the FOIA Ombudsman's important functions is acting as a tour guide for FOIA requesters. (NARA ID 7720988)

One of the FOIA Ombudsman’s important functions is acting as a tour guide for FOIA requesters. (NARA ID 7720988)

As the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Ombudsman, one of OGIS’s important functions is to help FOIA requesters better understand how the FOIA process works. We do this by working directly with those who contact our office and by making a variety of resources available on our website

While many of the requests for assistance that we receive require that we mediate a dispute, other customers contact us with more basic questions about the FOIA process itself. If you have a question about the process, you can contact us by emailing ogis@nara.gov or calling 1-877-684-6448 (we also receive questions by mail and fax—find out all of the ways to contact us here). These questions are generally answered within a couple of days by members of OGIS’s Mediation Team.

To improve public understanding of the FOIA process, we also have a great set of Resources available on our recently re-organized website. The OGIS Toolbox includes links to resources for FOIA requesters, like OGIS’s Best Practices for Filing FOIA Requests, a FOIA FAQ, and a chart that explains FOIA’s fee system. The OGIS Toolbox also includes our list of Additional FOIA Resources; this page includes links to and an explanation of both government and non-government resources that can be helpful to FOIA requesters.

It’s no secret that FOIA has its own vocabulary; if there is a FOIA word that you are curious about (just what is a Vaughn index, anyway?), check out our FOIA Glossary for a list of basic words or search our more extensive Library of FOIA terms.

Do you have a suggestion for any other material we should include on our Resources page or that we should add to the OGIS Toolbox? Let us know in the comments!

Posted in Best practices, Customer service, Ombudsman, Plain Language | Leave a comment

Improvements to Coast Guard’s FOIA Program

The United States Coast Guard has taken concrete steps to improve the office's FOIA program. (NARA Identifier 515822)

The Coast Guard has taken concrete steps to improve the office’s FOIA program. (NARA Identifier 515822)

In September 2015, OGIS issued a compliance assessment of the United States Coast Guard’s FOIA program. As part of our assessment, we recommended several improvements to the program’s management, use of technology and communications with its requesters.

One hundred and twenty days after we issue an assessment report, we follow up with the agency to see what, if any, action the agency has taken to implement our recommendations. When we followed up with the Coast Guard earlier this month, we were pleased to learn that the agency has taken concrete steps to implement some of our recommended changes.

According to FOIA Managers at the Coast Guard, the agency is revising its FOIA Manual and discussing with Coast Guard leadership the agency’s ability to access records housed on Department of Defense servers. As you might remember, we cited the latter as an area for improvement because in response to FOIA requests for emails, the Coast Guard may be required to coordinate with Department of Defense (DoD) FOIA processors to search records hosted on DoD servers, which delays the FOIA process.

Coast Guard also reported overhauling its FOIA web page and directing requesters seeking maritime accident reports to check the agency’s open investigations database: https://cgmix.uscg.mil/IIR/IIRSearch.aspx. As we point out in our compliance assessment report, records pertaining to investigations into boating accidents are frequently requested under FOIA.  The Coast Guard also reported that it has revised its template letters to include more plain language and less jargon; Coast Guard also removed language in appeal letters saying the agency cannot provide estimated dates of completion.

As we continue to assess agency FOIA programs and complete our 120-day follow up process, we look forward to learning about more changes agencies have made to make the FOIA process more efficient and effective.

Posted in Review | 1 Comment