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 | 1 Comment

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

Register Now for Sunshine Week 2016 at the National Archives

We hope you will join us on March 14 to soak up some sunshine! (NARA Identifier 194728)

We hope you will join us on March 14 to soak up some sunshine! (NARA Identifier 194728)

Hopefully your calendars are marked for Sunshine Week 2016 at the National Archives, which is taking place in NARA’s William G. McGowan Theater from 1 – 4:30 pm on March 14. You can register to attend here.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative launched by the American Society of News Editors to focus attention on the importance of open government. Sunshine Week 2016 is particularly meaningful because this year is the 50th anniversary of the signing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Archivist of the United States David Ferriero will kick off the event with his remarks, and we have an impressive list of speakers who will follow. The presentations will focus on recent changes to FOIA and the promise of technology (from both inside and outside of government) to improve transparency.  Be sure to check out our updated agenda here: https://ogis.archives.gov/outreach-events/sunshine-week-2016/draft-agenda.htm.

The event is free and open to the public but you must register by March 11. For those of you who are not in the DC area, we will also offer a live webcast of the event.

If you are interested in learning more about other Sunshine Week 2016 events, be sure to visit the Sunshine Week calendar, and join in the conversation about open government on Twitter by using #SunshineWeek.

Posted in Sunshine Week 2016 | 2 Comments

An Update – and Request for Input – from the FOIA Advisory Committee

Be sure to record your thoughts on the role of agency FOIA Public Liaisons with the FOIA Advisory Committee. (NARA Identifier 521255)

On January 19, 2016, the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee held its seventh quarterly meeting at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. We heard from the  three subcommittees: Oversight and Accountability, FOIA Fees, and Proactive Disclosure.  If you were not able to join us in person, you can still get in on the action:

The Archivist of United States, David Ferriero, kicked off the meeting by announcing that the National Archives will renew the Committee’s charter for another two years. If you are interested in applying for the Committee’s next term, we encourage you to read the Committee’s bylaws to learn more about its membership criteria and purpose, and to keep an eye on this blog for information on how to submit nominations.

During the meeting, the Committee voted to move forward with its first recommendation to the Archivist, a proposal from the FOIA Fees subcommittee that the Archivist recommend that the Office of Management and Budget update its 1987 guidance to agencies on fees. The Fees subcommittee intends to present the Committee with more specific recommendations for updating the guidance at the next Committee meeting, scheduled for April 19, 2016.

The Oversight and Accountability subcommittee announced that it would like to hear your thoughts on the impact and effectiveness of the FOIA Public Liaison role. If you have observations that you would like to share, please check out the subcommittee’s request and learn how to share your feedback here: https://ogis.archives.gov/Assets/foiaac-fpl-request-public-comment.pdf?method=1

Posted in Fees, FOIA Advisory Committee, FOIA Public Liaisons | Leave a comment

OGIS Releases FOIA Compliance Self-Assessment Program

Use our FOIA Compliance Self-Assessment to check-up on your agency's FOIA program. (NARA Identifier 7385013)

Use our FOIA Compliance Self-Assessment to check-up on your agency’s FOIA program. (NARA Identifier 7385013)

Is your Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program in need of a check-up? Starting January 27, Federal agencies can participate in OGIS’s new FOIA self-assessment program.

OGIS is required to review agency compliance with FOIA under the statute. To help meet that mandate, we developed a robust agency assessment program in which our Compliance Team interviews agency personnel and reviews the agency’s regulations, annual FOIA reports, website, litigation, and FOIA request files to develop a full understanding of the FOIA office’s opportunities and challenges. At the end of the assessment, we release a report highlighting the agency’s best practices and making recommendations for improvement.

Our new self-assessment program is designed to complement, not replace, 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. The self-assessment—an online survey—is designed 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.

The self-assessment program will not be used to grade or rank agency FOIA programs. OGIS will review agencies’ answers to the online questionnaire, which includes 27 questions, to identify trends government-wide. Director Holzer sent a letter to the Chief FOIA Officers at more than 60 agencies asking them to have the agency’s FOIA officers and/or supervisors complete the survey; the agencies Director Holzer contacted process more than 99.5 percent of all federal FOIA requests. Multiple offices and components can participate in the self-assessment survey.

The self-assessment survey will be open until March 11, 2016. We plan discuss the results of the self-assessment program during Sunshine Week 2017, and we look forward to seeing the results and sharing what we learn about any government-wide trends.

*Post updated on February 8, 2016 to provide a more accurate percentage of the number of requests processed by the agencies contacted.
Posted in Review | 2 Comments

Case Study in Clarity

We play a valuable role in facilitating communications between a requester and an agency. A recent request made by National Public Radio (NPR) to the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) provides an example of this function.

NPR reporter Caitlin Dickerson made a request to the NRL for records about a World War II-era medical experiment that used human subjects; the agency released the records in full. While Ms. Dickerson was mostly pleased with the agency’s release, the records included a number of photographs which, when reproduced, were blurry. NPR contacted the agency, asking that the images be re-scanned at a higher resolution; the NRL scanned the images again and released the second set. Unfortunately, this second set of images, while better than the first, were still not of a high-enough resolution to be useful to NPR. Ms. Dickerson contacted the agency again, but the NRL, having produced two sets of records at that point, thought that they had fulfilled the FOIA request in accordance with the law and closed the request.

At this point, NPR contacted OGIS to see if this dispute could be resolved outside of the administrative appeal process. NPR asked us to inquire whether someone from the organization could bring NPR’s own equipment to the agency in order to scan the images at the resolution she needed. We contacted the agency to discuss this offer; the NRL declined, citing security regulations at the facility in which the records were held.

Medical Experiment

While we often encourage agencies to resolve complex FOIA issues by drawing on the knowledge of other departments (for instance, enlisting the assistance of the agency’s information technology professionals with requests for database records), in this instance, the requester took the same approach. NPR discussed the matter internally, drawing on the expertise of NPR’s photo editor, NRL agreed to scan the pictures again using NPR’s recommended settings, and we facilitated this exchange of information. The agency made the necessary adjustments and released a third set of records that met the NPR’s needs.

While we primarily work with FOIA disputes at the conclusion of the FOIA process—after the agency has reviewed its actions and decisions on appeal—in this instance, an earlier intervention on a relatively simple matter helped the requester get the records she needed faster, and kept an appeal out of the agency’s backlog. The result was two news stories (http://www.npr.org/2015/06/22/415194765/u-s-troops-tested-by-race-in-secret-world-war-ii-chemical-experiments and http://www.npr.org/2015/06/23/416408655/the-vas-broken-promise-to-thousands-of-vets-exposed-to-mustard-gas) that illuminate a fascinating aspect of American military history, punctuated by photographs that make the stories that much more compelling.

Posted in About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, Customer service, FOIA Public Liaisons, Mediation services, OGIS Case Study | 1 Comment