Agencies Using Technology to Provide Estimated Dates of Completion

(NARA Identifier 6601289)

Some agencies continue to struggle with providing estimated dates of completion, while others have made providing this information part of their process. (NARA Identifier 6601289)

Providing estimated dates of completion can be a challenge—but it’s also the law. As we’ve previously noted, Congress amended FOIA in 2007 to require agencies to provide requesters with estimated dates of completion when asked.  We think that estimated dates of completion are so important that we analyze their use as part of our agency compliance assessments.

We know that some agencies continue to struggle with meeting this requirement, while others have made providing this information part of their process. The two agencies highlighted below use technology in different ways to fulfill the estimated-date-of-completion mandate.

The Internal Revenue Service

In 2014, OGIS co-hosted a FOIA Requester Roundtable on estimated dates of completion and  learned that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) uses its FOIA processing software to track estimated completion dates for its pending requests. IRS has configured the system so that if the estimated date of completion passes before the case is closed, the agency’s processors use the software to generate a letter updating the requester on the status of his or her request.*

Department of Homeland Security

The Privacy Office at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has tackled the issue by creating an online tool that allows requesters to receive an estimated date of completion by entering the FOIA request’s tracking number. The online tracking tool uses data from the office’s FOIA tracking and processing system to automatically generate an estimated date of completion. Other DHS components that use the same tracking and processing system have access to this tool. Offices that are not on the same system can make use of the tool by providing the Privacy Office with data from their system in a standardized format.

When DHS’s online tracking tool first launched, FOIA processors needed to manually update the estimated date of completion to provide any additional time needed to respond to the requester. The office would sometimes receive calls from requesters who were upset that the estimated date of completion had passed with no response. The Privacy Office addressed this issue by updating the tracking and processing system so that an additional 30 days is automatically added to the estimate if the deadline passes without the case being closed. Since implementation of this fix, the volume of calls checking on the status of overdue requests has declined.

Does your office have a particularly good method for handling requests for estimated dates of completion? Please let us know!

*An earlier version of this post indicated that the IRS’s software automatically generated a letter updating the requester on the status of the request.

Posted in Best practices, innovation, IT Solutions, Requester Roundtable | Leave a comment

New U.S. Open Government NAP No Snore for FOIA Fans

NAP3The Administration released its third Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) on Tuesday October 27. The release of NAP 3.0 coincided with the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Mexico.

The multi-national Open Government Partnership was created to encourage governments to commit to making their country more open and accountable to the public. Countries participating in the Open Government Partnership are required to consult with civil society and develop plans that include concrete steps the government will take over the next two years to increase transparency.

As the Nation’s record keeper, the National Archives and Records Administration has a leading role in several of the new NAP commitments, including commitments to modernize the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Strengthening FOIA was a component of both the First U.S. NAP, which was released in July 2011, and the Second U.S. NAP, released in December 2013. We are happy that NAP 3.0 continues to focus on improving FOIA.

The new FOIA commitments are:

  • Expand the Services Offered on FOIA.gov. The Administration will harness technology to improve the services offered on gov. Building upon the commitment from the second NAP to launch a consolidated online FOIA service, the Department of Justice will collaborate with agencies, seek public input, review existing technologies such as FOIAonline, and leverage technological tools to expand on the existing FOIA.gov. Additional new features will also be explored, including a guided request tool, online tracking of request status, simplified reporting methods for agencies, improved FOIA contact information, and tools that will enhance the public’s ability to locate already posted information.
  • Improve Agency Proactive Disclosures by Posting FOIA-Released Records Online. The Department of Justice will lead a pilot program with seven agencies to test the feasibility of posting FOIA-released records online so that they are available to the public. The pilot will seek to answer important questions including costs associated with such a policy, effect on staff time required to process requests, effect on interactions with government stakeholders, and the justification for exceptions to such a policy, such as for personal privacy. As part of the pilot, the Department of Justice will get input from civil society stakeholders, including requesters and journalists. Upon completion of the pilot, the Justice Department will make the results available to the public.
  • Improve Agency FOIA Websites. The Administration will issue guidance and create best practices for agency FOIA web pages, including developing a template for key elements to encourage all agencies to update their FOIA websites to be consistent, informative, and user-friendly.
  • Increase Understanding of FOIA. The National Archives will develop tools to teach students about FOIA, drawing upon real-world examples to foster democracy and explain how the public can use FOIA to learn more about the government’s actions. The National Archives will seek partnerships with outside educational and library organizations to create and promote standards-compatible curriculum resources that teachers can use in government, history, or civics classes. All developed resources will be posted online.
  • Proactively Release Nonprofit Tax Filings. Tax filings for nonprofit organizations contain data that is legally required to be publicly released. Accessing the filings generally requires a request from the public, which can include a FOIA request, and results in more than 40 million pages provided in a non-machine-readable format. The Internal Revenue Service will launch a new process that will remove personally identifiable information before releasing the public information within electronically filed nonprofit tax filings. The electronically filed tax filings will be released as open, machine-readable data, allowing the public to review the finances and other information of more than 340,000 American nonprofit and charitable organizations.

OGIS looks forward to working with our colleagues at the National Archives, the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice, and other agencies to accomplish these commitments.

Posted in Open Government | 1 Comment

FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting Round-up

On Tuesday, October 20, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee held its sixth meeting in the Archivist’s Reception Room. The purpose of the meeting was for the Committee’s three subcommittees – Oversight and Accountability, FOIA Fees, and Proactive Disclosure – to provide updates on their work.

As the Committee moves into the backstretch of its initial two year charter, the Committee’s focus is turning towards the content and structure of the advice regarding the government-wide administration of FOIA it wants to provide to the Archivist of the United States. For those of you who were not able to attend, OGIS live-Tweeted the meeting. Click on the picture below to read our updates.

Storify_Committee2

A video of the meeting will soon be available on the National Archives and Records Administration YouTube Account. We also will post the meeting minutes on the Committee’s webpage.

We hope you will mark your calendars for the next Committee meeting on Tuesday, January 26, 2016. If you have any thoughts to share with the Committee before then, please submit them here.

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

Every Day is Conflict Resolution Day at OGIS

Agencies have embraced alternative dispute resolution  to improve customer service and reduce litigation. (NARA Identifier 513982)

Agencies have embraced alternative dispute resolution to improve customer service and reduce litigation. (NARA Identifier 513982)

Since OGIS opened in 2009, we’ve worked to improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process by providing mediation services to help resolve disputes between requesters and Federal agencies.  We handled more than 1,200 requests for assistance in Fiscal Year 2015 alone. In addition to mediating cases, we provide twice-yearly training to help agency FOIA professionals develop the skills they need to communicate productively with requesters.

OGIS’s mediation services fall under the broad category of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). The use of ADR across the Federal government has surged in recent decades as agencies search for ways to improve customer service and reduce litigation. Agencies have employed ADR to help resolve issues ranging from workplace conflict to contracts and procurement and beyond.

To recognize the increasing importance of ADR in the Federal government, OGIS joined Archivist of the United States David Ferriero and the National Archives and Records Administration’s General Counsel, Gary Stern, in issuing a statement recognizing October 15, 2015, as Conflict Resolution Day. You can learn more about how other Federal agencies are embracing ADR by browsing adr.gov and reading other agency’s Conflict Resolution Day messages.

Posted in About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Best practices, Mediation services | Leave a comment

Don’t Miss Out: RSVP Now for the FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting

We hope you can join us at the National Archives on October 20th! (NARA Identifier 3493274)

We hope you can join us at the National Archives on October 20th! (NARA Identifier 3493274)

If you’re in the DC area, we hope you can join us for the next meeting of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee, taking place on Tuesday, October 20th from 10 am to 1 pm.  The meeting will be held at the National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in the Archivist’s Reception Room (Room 105). To attend you must RSVP.

Similar to past meetings of the FOIA Advisory Committee, the purpose of this meeting is to hear updates from the subcommittees and gather public feedback. Our regular readers know that the Committee is focusing its work on three issues: FOIA fees, oversight and accountability, and proactive disclosure. The Committee is expected to present recommendations to improve the FOIA process to the Archivist of the United States.

Over the past year, Committee members have been hard at work studying these issues and gathering information in order to inform its recommendations. Before the meeting, we hope you will take a few minutes to look through the collection of resources put together by members of the Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee and the results of the Subcommittee’s survey of FOIA Public Liaisons. You can also review the results of a survey created by the Fees Subcommittee on the use of FOIA fees by agencies.

If you cannot attend the meeting, please be on the lookout for videos of the meeting on the Committee’s meetings web page. If you have comments for the committee, they may be submitted online.

Posted in FOIA Advisory Committee | Leave a comment

OGIS Release New Year’s Calendar

OGIS is celebrating a new fiscal year, albeit without hats and champagne. (NARA Identifier 16916027)

OGIS is celebrating a new fiscal year, albeit without hats and champagne. (NARA Identifier 16916027)

Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 has been an exciting one for OGIS! We launched our agency compliance program, hosted four meetings of the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee, and welcomed Dr. James Holzer as our Director, not to mention assisted agencies and FOIA requesters in resolving disputes in more than 1,200 instances.

As we reflect on the past year, we are also thinking ahead to FY 2016, and specifically, the next phase of our agency assessment and training programs. This calendar shows our tentative schedule for both our upcoming agency compliance assessments and our Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training sessions.

FY16_OGIS_Calendar

If you have any feedback, please let us know in the comments. Please also let us know if there are any agencies or issues you would like us to consider assessing in the future.

Posted in About OGIS, Alternative dispute resolution, Review, Training | 2 Comments

Compliance Review of Coast Guard FOIA Program Now Available

Our assessment of the FOIA program at the United States Coast Guard is now available.

Our assessment of Coast Guard's FOIA program highlights best practices and includes recommendations for improvement. (NARA identifier 513542)

Our assessment of Coast Guard’s FOIA program highlights best practices and includes recommendations for improvement. (NARA identifier 513542)

The Coast Guard’s FOIA process is decentralized, meaning that requests received in the nine districts and more than 1,200 units are processed by those districts and units, generally as a collateral duty. Final memorandums on maritime disasters and records pertaining to investigations into boating accidents are frequently requested under FOIA. The Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis, which investigates boating accidents and reports of pollution, processed the bulk of the 2,620 requests that the Coast Guard processed in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014.

The report, our second of six assessments of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) component FOIA programs, highlights the agency’s best practices and includes several recommendations for improving the Coast Guard’s FOIA program. Among our recommendations are that the Coast Guard:

  • Create a plan to centralize its FOIA process;
  • Create clear standard operating procedures for the FOIA process by updating the Coast Guard FOIA manual;
  • Fully implement the Coast Guard’s FOIA processing system;
  • Overhaul the Coast Guard FOIA web page, including reviewing all reference material for accuracy; and
  • Send a link to the open investigations database to all requesters who seek investigative records.

We will follow up with Coast Guard and DHS officials in 120 days regarding the status of our recommendations.

As our regular readers know, we are working on assessments of four other DHS component FOIA programs: the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, the United States Secret Service, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Please keep up with our assessments by watching this blog, and following us on Twitter: @FOIA_Ombuds.

Posted in About FOIA, Best practices, Review | 1 Comment

OGIS Releases Compliance Review of FEMA FOIA Program

OGIS's report on the FEMA FOIA program highlights the agency's best practices and includes recommendations for improvement (NARA identifier 7856316)

OGIS’s report highlights the FEMA FOIA program’s best practices and includes recommendations for improvement (NARA identifier 7856316)

We’re happy to announce the release of our assessment of the FOIA program at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is now public. As our regular blog readers may know, the assessment of FEMA is one of six compliance reports that we are working on and will publish in the coming months.

OGIS’s report includes a number of observations about FEMA’s FOIA program, including the agency’s best practices. Our report also includes a number of recommendations to improve the FEMA FOIA program. A few of these recommendations are:

  • Track volume of records processed and use volume as a management and oversight control tool
  • Create a triage process that queues complex and simple requests based on the number of responsive pages or the topic of the request
  • Overhaul the agency’s FOIA website to help reduce the office’s administrative burden and increase requester knowledge about FOIA
  • Create a policy or procedure to regularly identify records to be posted to the FEMA FOIA website
  • Communicate regularly with requesters to update them on estimated dates of completion, status in the queue, and ask for change in address, if applicable

Please download our report to see all of our observations and recommendations.

Posted in Best practices, Review | Leave a comment

Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals Training Session: October 6, 2015

Join us for a great training session! (NARA identifier 594263)

Join us for a great training session! (NARA identifier 594263)

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 Tuesday, October 6, 2015 at the Archives building on Constitution Ave between 7th and 9th streets NW in Washington, D.C. 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-tickets-17177376997. Space for this training program is extremely limited and the program fills up very quickly, so please do not wait to register.

Eventbrite - Dispute Resolution Skills Training Session - October 6, 2015

Posted in Alternative dispute resolution, Training | 5 Comments

OGIS is Atwitter—and on Twitter

We hope to see you all in the Twitter-sphere! (NARA Identifier 7717695)

We hope to see you all in the Twitter-sphere! (NARA Identifier 7717695)

We have some exciting news to share: on Monday, September 14 we will officially launch our Twitter feed. If you can’t wait till Monday, please feel free to go ahead and follow @FOIA_Ombuds.

To celebrate, we will host a lunchtime FOIA trivia challenge every day between Monday September 14 and Wednesday September 30. At noon we will tweet a question about FOIA, and we’ll retweet the first correct answer. Join the fun using #FOIATrivia!

What can you expect from @FOIA_Ombuds? Please know that we will not be discussing any individual requests for assistance – confidentiality is a crucial part of our mediation work. If you need our assistance with a FOIA dispute, please email ogis@nara.gov. We will share news about our agency assessments (our report on of the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s FOIA program is coming very soon), upcoming events, blog posts, and more. We look forward to hearing from you!

Posted in About OGIS | 2 Comments