Justice Blogs

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Department of Justice is pleased to announce the publication of its new, updated FOIA regulations which will become effective May 4, 2015.  FOIA regulations serve as a resource for both agency personnel and the public.  They provide procedural information for requesters, such as details about where and how to make a request.  They also set forth requirements for agencies, such as details about information that should be included in agency correspondence with requesters. 

The Department has updated its FOIA regulations and streamlined the language contained in them to make the regulations more user-friendly.  The updated regulations also reflect a range of practices embraced by the Department in support of the President's and Attorney General Holder's 2009 FOIA directives, particularly the Department’s policy encouraging discretionary releases. 

The new FOIA regulations were developed with public feedback and useful suggestions from requesters.  Many of the changes incorporate best practices from OIP's guidance that improve the FOIA process for both the Department and requesters.  For example, the new regulations include:

  • A focus on the role of the Department's FOIA Contacts and FOIA Public Liaisons to assist requesters both before and after a request is made
  • Proactive notification to requesters of which processing track their request falls in and an opportunity for requesters to narrow their requests to fit a faster track
  • Procedures on referrals, consultations and coordinations, which among other things require agencies to provide requesters the name and FOIA contact information of any agency where records are referred
  • An emphasis on good communication practices, which include the Department's commitment to communicate with requesters electronically whenever feasible, as well as other practices that ensure communications are made in the spirit of cooperation called for by the President and Attorney General Holder.

These are just a few examples of the new provisions in the Department's FOIA regulations.  The full text of the regulations can be found here.  Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for the latest FOIA news from OIP.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In February, OIP held its last scheduled Best Practices Workshop in this new series of training.  The Best Practices Workshop series, designed as a part of the United States’ Second Open Government National Action Plan commitment to further modernize FOIA, aims to leverage effective strategies from across the government by highlighting and sharing successes achieved by agencies on a wide range of FOIA issues. OIP is currently in the process of developing its new schedule of workshops for 2015 and we invite both agencies and the public to give us suggestions for new topics. 

The February workshop featured an expert panel discussion on FOIA customer service and dispute resolution.  President Obama’s FOIA Memorandum and Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines direct agencies to work with requesters in a “spirit of cooperation,” and many agencies have implemented a range of good customer service practices as part of their FOIA administration.

The panelists for this Workshop included:  Carmen Mallon, Chief of Staff for the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice; Dennis Argall, Assistant Section Chief for the Record Information Dissemination Section at the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Paul Jacobsmeyer, Chief of the Freedom of Information Act Division of Washington Headquarters Services at the Department of Defense; and Carrie McGuire, Mediation Team Lead for the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Each panelist discussed best practices they have used and seen to promote good customer service.  Much of the discussion reemphasized the importance of several of the best practices highlighted in the October Workshop, which featured panelists from the requester community.  Some notable examples of the best practices discussed include:

  • Communicating with the requesters throughout the life of a request – Maintaining open communication with requesters is critical for providing good customer service. This can include promptly acknowledging receipt of a request, explaining the FOIA process to requesters who are unfamiliar with it, and ensuring that requesters can easily contact the agency to ask questions and inquire about the status of their requests.  Open communication also includes a range of actions, such as providing a sample of records responsive to a request to help the requester understand the type of material the agency has located and utilizing interim responses whenever possible to provide material on a rolling basis.
  • Proactively communicating with requesters – Several panelists found success in proactive efforts to communicate with requesters.  For example, reaching out to requesters who have (sometimes unknowingly) made broad or complex requests can help clarify questions the agency has while at the same time provide  requesters the opportunity to reformulate their requests so that records can be more readily located and processed more efficiently.  Proactive outreach to provide the status of a request can also be beneficial, particularly for requests that have been pending for any significant length of time.  By actively communicating with requesters in such situations, the agency not only is providing good customer service, but the communication itself can lead to further discussions about ways to help  requesters obtain  responsive records as efficiently as possible.
  • Memorializing discussions with the requester – Agencies should make it as easy as possible for requesters to clarify or reformulate their requests.  Documenting discussions with requesters, especially when the requester agrees to amend his or her request, is critical to ensure that the agency and the requester mutually understand what was discussed.  Agencies should promptly follow-up substantive phone discussions with an e-mail or letter that summarizes what was discussed and that includes contact information in case the requester has additional questions or concerns.
  • Using Multi-track processing to improve customer service – Multi-track processing can help agencies provide good customer service in two ways.  Utilization of a multi-track system provides a mechanism for the agency to process "simple" requests in a different queue from "complex" requests, which in turn can allow for improved timeliness for the "simple" track requests.  Additionally, by establishing multiple processing tracks, agencies can more readily offer requesters the option of tailoring their request so that it fits within the "simple" track and can be processed more quickly.

A list of all the best practices discussed during this series and related OIP guidance can be found on the Best Practices Workshop Series page of OIP's website. 

The Best Practices Workshop series will continue and OIP is currently developing the topics for the next slate of events in this series.  We invite you to suggest discussion topics for these upcoming events, and you can e-mail your suggestions for new workshop topics to DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov using the subject line "Agency Best Practices Workshop Suggestion." 

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Friday, March 20, 2015

Over the course of Sunshine Week this week, agencies across the government began posting their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Since the issuance of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines in 2009, agency Chief FOIA Officers have reported to the Justice Department annually on their efforts towards improving the administration of the FOIA at their agencies. Over the last six years, these Chief FOIA Officer Reports have served as a valuable resource for agencies to detail their efforts in implementing the President’s and Attorney General’s FOIA Memoranda. On Monday, the Department of Justice released its 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report and a compilation of success stories from other agency reports.

Each year, agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports illustrate the steps undertaken by agencies to improve their administration of the FOIA and to implement the five key areas of FOIA administration addressed in Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines. These five areas are:  applying the presumption of openness; ensuring that there are effective systems in place for responding to requests; increasing proactive disclosures; increasing the utilization of technology; and improving timeliness and reducing backlogs.

The Justice Department’s 2015 Report released this week details a range of initiatives for each of these areas, including:

  • Leading the efforts to further modernize FOIA through a number of commitments made in the United States' Second Open Government National Action Plan. These initiatives include working on a consolidated online FOIA service, developing common FOIA regulations and practices for federal agencies, improving internal agency FOIA processes across the government by leveraging best practices, improving FOIA training by making standard e-learning resources available for all federal employees, and participating in a FOIA Federal Advisory Committee.
  • The Department also continued to expand its robust FOIA training program in an effort to provide quality FOIA training and resources to all federal employees. OIP's FOIA instructors provided training on a range of topics to over a thousand federal employees across the government. OIP also released a new suite of four electronically available FOIA training tools designed for all levels of the federal workforce from the senior executive whose support is key, to agency program personnel, to the FOIA professionals who process records. This new collection of training tools helps ensure that all agencies have a ready set of targeted resources to make available to all their employees.
  • The Department proactively posted more information to its websites, and continued to post that information in ways that are most useful to the public. The Department's FOIA.gov website continues to be a central resource for all FOIA data and resources. With Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Report data now on the website, users can compare agencies' FOIA administration from this past fiscal year across agencies and over time. The other features on the site, such as videos about the FOIA and how it works, and FOIA contact information for all 100 agencies, continues to also serve as a valuable resource for the public.

As agencies post their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, we encourage you to review them to find out more about the various FOIA efforts undertaken by government agencies this past year.  OIP will once again provide a central link to these reports on our website as they become available.

As with last year’s Reports, OIP will begin its five-part series in the coming weeks here on FOIA Post to highlight agency achievements and initiatives in each of the five key areas addressed by the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines. Additionally, OIP will once again publish an assessment of agencies’ implementation of the President's and Attorney General's FOIA Memoranda based on agency Annual and Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Awardee at DOJ Sunshine Week Event

This past Monday, individuals from around the government and members of the public gathered in the Great Hall of the Robert F. Kennedy Building to celebrate the start of Sunshine Week 2015. The annual event, held in commemoration of the sixth anniversary of the issuance of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, recognized and celebrated the accomplishments of agency FOIA professionals.

Acting Associate Attorney General and Department of Justice Chief FOIA Officer Stuart Delery served as the keynote speaker at the event, and highlighted a number of FOIA initiatives undertaken at the Justice Department over the last year, including:

  • The FOIA Improvement Initiative - a comprehensive review of FOIA operations at the Department’s thirty-seven components designed to share best practices and identify areas for improvement,
  • FOIA Training Modernization – OIP’s recently released suite of electronic FOIA training resources, designed for members of the federal workforce at every level, and
  • Best Practices Workshop Series – the ongoing series aimed at gathering together FOIA professionals from around the government, as well as civil society, to share experiences, lessons learned, and strategies for success on a variety of topics.

In his remarks, Acting Associate Attorney General Delery stressed that “[t]hese steps to spread awareness and expertise across the government are vital to promoting FOIA’s objective of transparency and openness.”  The Acting Associate Attorney General provided the following message to FOIA professionals who continue to process ever-increasing numbers of requests:

“I commend all of you for the dedication you continue to demonstrate in performing a difficult and important job, and now I am pleased to have the chance to honor the recipients of this year’s awards for outstanding contributions to our FOIA work.”

Agencies and members of the public were asked to submit nominations for six award categories to OIP. Key achievements from these submissions were highlighted by OIP Director Melanie Ann Pustay when recognizing each award recipient. As nominated by their agencies, the following awards were presented by Acting Associate Attorney General Delery and Director Pustay:

  • Exceptional Service by a FOIA Professional: Martha Wagner Murphy (National Archives and Records Administration), Cynthia Floyd-Coleman (Environmental Protection Agency), and Manizheh Boehm (Federal Highway Administration)
  • Award for Exceptional FOIA Service by a Team of Agency Professionals: The Federal Highway Administration Headquarters Chief Counsel FOIA Team, the Department  of Agriculture FOIA Training Subcommittee, and the Office of Personnel Management FOIA Service Center team.
  • Lifetime Service Award: Debbie Verzi (Social Security Administration), and Brenda Dolan (Department of Commerce)
  • Excellence in Management: James Holzer (Department of Homeland Security), Michael Marquis (Department of Health and Human Services), and Kathy Ray (Department of Transportation)
  • Outstanding Contributions by a New Employee: Arnon Dayak (Food and Drug Administration), and Alexis Graves (Department of Agriculture)
  • Outstanding Customer Service: Roberta Parsons (Department of Commerce), Harriette Boyd (Department of Commerce), and Judith Lewis (Environmental Protection Agency)

OIP would like to again recognize and thank each of the awardees for their work and contributions towards the administration of the FOIA at their agencies.  Agency FOIA professionals are the heart of any successful FOIA administration and we commend their hard work and continued service.

Read the full remarks from Acting Associate Attorney General and Department of Justice Chief FOIA Officer Stuart Delery.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Monday, March 16, 2015

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is commonly referred to as the law that allows citizens to know “what their government is up to.” In addition to publishing information in the Federal Register and processing requests made by individuals, the statute also contains proactive disclosure provisions which require agencies to make certain categories of non-exempt records available to the public without waiting for a FOIA request. Today, OIP has released new guidance designed to improve agency compliance with these provisions in line with the tenets of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines.

The FOIA statute itself, in subsection (a)(2) outlines four categories of records that agencies are required to “make available for public inspection and copying” consisting of operational documents (final orders & opinions, policy statements, and staff manuals & instructions) and “frequently requested records.” Both the President and Attorney General Holder have directed agencies to “take affirmative steps to make information public” and to “readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request.” As noted in this new guidance,

“When agencies make proactive disclosures they are enhancing transparency by ensuring that certain key information about the operations and activities of the government is readily and efficiently made available to all.”

In addition to providing an overview of the legal requirements of the FOIA to make various types of records available proactively, the guidance addresses ways in which agencies can take additional steps to improve transparency through proactive disclosures. A specific focus of the new guidance is of the requirement for agencies to post “FOIA-processed records on popular topics that the agency determines are, or are likely to be, the subject of multiple FOIA requests.”

OIP’s new guidance provides information on proactive disclosures to agencies on a variety of topics, including:

  • Methods of disclosures – where agencies post proactively disclosed records, specifically FOIA Libraries;
  • Strategies for identifying “Frequently Requested” records – steps that agencies can take to efficiently and effectively locate records requested multiple times or topics that could become the subject of multiple requests; and
  • Ensuring that posted information is useable – outlining how agencies can work to make information that is posted is in a user-friendly format.

Included with the guidance is also a checklist to serve as a reference and resource for agencies in the implementation of this guidance.

The full text of the guidance, along with all other guidance issued by OIP, is available on our guidance page. OIP encourages agencies to review their procedures for identifying and posting proactive disclosures to ensure they are efficiently and effectively carrying out their obligations for this important aspect of FOIA administration.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Friday, March 13, 2015

Yesterday, OIP Director Melanie Ann Pustay announced the rollout of a new suite of FOIA training tools designed to ensure that all agencies have important FOIA resources available to them, reinforcing Attorney General Holder’s message that "FOIA is everyone's responsibility."

As President Obama declared on his first full day in office, "the [FOIA], which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government." The foundation of any successful FOIA operation is that all federal employees within the agency have a proper understanding of the law and their unique roles in its implementation.

OIP's new collection of training tools is designed to help ensure that all levels of the federal workforce have training tools available to them on the FOIA. The new training tools include:

  • An infographic that can serve as a resource on FOIA basics for all employees new to the federal workforce;
     
  • A brief video from Director Pustay aimed at senior government executives, providing a general overview of the FOIA and emphasizing the importance of their support to their agency’s FOIA program;
     
  • An e-Learning training module for all federal employees that provides a primer on the FOIA and highlights ways in which they can assist their agency in administering the law; and
     
  • An in-depth e-Learning training module specifically designed for FOIA professionals which addresses all the major procedural and substantive requirements of the law, as well as the importance of customer service.

Both the infographic and executive video can be found on the training page of OIP's website. Agencies can request a SCORM 1.2 LMS ready copy of the FOIA e-Learning courses on CD by contacting OIP's Training Coordinator at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “Request for e-Learning Modules.” Agency e-Learning staff that would like to electronically receive the courses via an FTP server or other means should contact Andy Anderson at aca.anderson@usdoj.gov.

The new training tools were very well received yesterday by many representatives from across the federal government who joined us in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice's Robert F. Kennedy Building. You can read more about the event and this new resource in an article posted today by Federal News Radio. You can also listen to the interview with OIP Director Pustay in which she outlines the new training tools, describes the rewards and challenges of administering FOIA today, and looks forward to exciting new developments for 2015.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Office of Information Policy has developed new FOIA resources designed to train all levels of the federal workforce to understand their FOIA responsibilities. These new resources were developed as part of our commitments in the U.S. Second Open Government National Action Plan, as well as the Department’s Open Government Plan 3.0. We are pleased to invite you to a presentation on Thursday, March 12th marking the rollout of these important new tools. 

A proper understanding of the FOIA, including the correct application of the statute's provisions and the President's and Attorney General Holder's 2009 FOIA Memoranda, is the first step toward any successful FOIA operation. As a key part of fulfilling our responsibility to encourage government-wide compliance, every year OIP provides and participates in various FOIA training programs across the government. Embracing the importance of FOIA training, many agencies have also reported on their own robust FOIA training efforts in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports. While these training efforts often focus on agency FOIA professionals, it is important that all federal employees have access to resources that help them understand their FOIA responsibilities. As Attorney General Holder emphasized in his 2009 FOIA Guidelines, "FOIA is everyone's responsibility." 

OIP's new collection of training tools are designed to help ensure that these important resources are available for all federal employees -- from the senior executive, to the everyday employee whose records might become subject to the FOIA, to the FOIA professionals responsible for processing records for disclosure. The new training tools being released include:

  • A brief video from the Director of OIP aimed at senior government executives, providing a general overview of the FOIA and emphasizing the importance of their support to their agency’s FOIA program;
     
  • An in-depth e-Learning training module specifically designed for FOIA professionals which addresses all the major procedural and substantive requirements of the law, as well as the importance of customer service;
     
  • A separate e-Learning training module for the everyday federal employee that provides a primer on the FOIA and highlights ways in which they can assist their agency in administering the law; and
     
  • An infographic that can serve as a resource on FOIA basics for all employees new to the federal workforce.

We invite you to join us for a presentation on each of these new resources and how they will be made available to agencies.  The details of this event, which is open to all agency personnel and members of the public, are:

FOIA Training Resources Rollout
Robert F. Kennedy Building - Great Hall
10th and Constitution Ave NW
March 12, 2015, 10:00 - 11:00 am

You will need a picture ID to enter the building.

We hope that you can join us. If you are interested in attending this event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Coordinator at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “FOIA Training Resources Rollout.”  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact our office at (202) 514-3642. 

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sunshine Week 2015 begins March 16th and the Department of Justice once again invites agency personnel and members of the public to join us as we kick off the week. For 2015 the Department of Justice is focusing its celebration on the many contributions made by FOIA professionals in the implementation of this important law.

Attorney General Holder recognized the critical importance of FOIA professionals in his FOIA Guidelines. As he noted, these individuals are “responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the Act” and “deserve the full support of the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer.” Each year, FOIA professionals from across the government work with their agency colleagues to uphold our nation’s commitment to open government through the effective administration of the FOIA.

In the years since the issuance of the FOIA Guidelines, agencies have taken concrete steps and shown great progress in improving their FOIA administration, including processing increasing numbers of FOIA requests, proactively disclosing more records online, and implementing new technologies to more efficiently meet increasing demands. These, and may other agency achievements over the years, are attributable to the hard work of FOIA professionals from across the government.

This year’s Sunshine Week event will celebrate the contributions of these FOIA professionals with awards recognizing their service. The event will also feature a keynote address from the Department of Justice.

The details of this event, which is open to all agency personnel and members of the public, are:

Department of Justice Sunshine Week 2015 Celebration
Robert F. Kennedy Building - Great Hall
10th and Constitution Ave NW
March 16, 2015, 10:00 am - Noon

You will need a picture ID to enter the building.

Nominations for the various awards, with submission guidelines and categories listed at the end of this post, can be submitted to the Office of Information Policy up until Monday, March 2nd.

We hope that you can join us for this year’s celebration. If you are interested in attending this event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Coordinator at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “Sunshine Week 2015 Celebration.” If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact our office at (202) 514-3642.

 

Department of Justice Sunshine Week FOIA Awards

Submission Guidelines

Eligible employees for these awards are all agency FOIA professionals. This can include Government Information Specialists, FOIA attorneys, or FOIA administrative specialists.

We invite nominations for these awards from agency professionals as well as members of the public and open government community.

Anyone submitting a nomination must provide: 

  • Their full name, title, agency or organization (if applicable), and an e-mail address,
  • The name(s) of the individual(s) they are nominating, and
  • the award category that best reflects the nominee’s accomplishments.

Each nomination must be accompanied by:

  • a letter, not to exceed two single-spaced pages, that describes the nominee’s or group’s accomplishments, why the individual or group should receive the award, what they have done that sets them apart, and how their actions benefited FOIA administration, and
  • an abstract (100 words or less) that briefly outlines the nominee’s accomplishments.

Submissions can be made to DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov using the subject line “2015 Sunshine Week FOIA Award Nomination.”

Award Categories

Award for Exceptional Service by a FOIA Professional

Recognizing exemplary performance by a FOIA professional in carrying out the agency’s administration of the FOIA.   This award recognizes those individuals whose exceptional contributions have significantly benefited FOIA administration and implementation of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines at their agency.  These benefits could include increased efficiency, greater use of technology, reduced backlogs, improved timeliness, and increased proactive disclosures. 

Award for Exceptional FOIA Service by a Team of Agency Professionals

Recognizing exemplary performance by a team of agency professionals. This award recognizes the outstanding performance by a team of employees, which can include a team within the FOIA office or a collaborative team between agency programmatic offices, in carrying out the agency’s administration of the FOIA.

Lifetime Service Award

Recognizing an agency FOIA professional with at least 20 years in civil service who has demonstrated high standards of excellence and dedication in the administration of the FOIA throughout their career.

Award for Excellence in Management

Recognizing outstanding performance in managerial achievements in the agency’s administration of the FOIA which have significantly improved operations, productivity, or reduced costs.

Award for Outstanding Contributions by a New Employee

Recognizing exceptional performance and notable contributions in carrying out the agency’s FOIA responsibilities by a new employee with fewer than three years of Federal service.

Award for Outstanding Customer Service

Recognizing outstanding performance in customer service by an agency FOIA professional.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Thursday, January 22, 2015

As a part of the ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops, OIP committed to publishing “tips and best practices discussed during these workshops” as a resource for all agencies. After each event, OIP has published recaps of each workshop and the best practices shared on FOIA Post with links to additional available resources. In order to promote easier access to this information, last week we introduced a new page on our website dedicated to the Best Practices Workshop series.

The new page on OIP’s website contains detailed information and resources connected to each of the events in this series, including:

  • Title and date of the event,
  • A link to the previously published event recap on FOIA Post,
  • A listing of event panelists, and
  • Links to additional resources on OIP’s website on the event topic.

Significantly, for each workshop we include a description of the best practices that were discussed during the event. Any FOIA professional can review those best practices and then adopt them for use in their own agency or use them as jumping off points for developing additional best practices. 

This page will continue to be updated as additional events take place.

The next event in this series, which will be held next month, will be on the topic of best practices in customer service and dispute resolution. We are pleased to announce that this event will be open to interested members of the public as well as agency personnel. The details for the next event are:

FOIA Best Practices Workshop
Best Practices in Customer Service and Dispute Resolution
Department of Justice, 2 Constitution Square
145 N Street NE – Room 1W 1001
February 18, 2015, 1:30 – 3:30 pm

You will need a picture ID to enter the building for this event.

Please note that there has been a date and location change for this event. If you have already registered for this workshop, OIP will forward this new information to you directly.

If you are interested in attending next month’s event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “February Best Practices Workshop.”  As space for this meeting is limited, registration is required to attend.  If you have any questions regarding this event or the Best Practices series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Attorney General Holder’s 2009 FOIA Guidelines emphasize that “agencies should make it a priority to respond [to requests] in a timely manner.”  This directive includes all aspects of FOIA administration, including the handling of requests for expedited processing.  It is important that agencies ensure that they have effective processes in place to promptly adjudicate such requests.  To encourage agency compliance with this distinct aspect of the FOIA, OIP recently issued guidance on this topic.    

The FOIA requires that agencies grant requesters expedited processing of their requests when the requester demonstrates a “compelling need,” or “in other cases determined by the agency.”  The FOIA also requires agencies to decide whether to expedite a request, and to convey this decision to the requester, within ten days.  Each year, agencies report statistics on their compliance with the FOIA’s expedited processing provisions in their Annual FOIA Reports.     

As agencies strive to meet the challenges of the increased volume and complexity of FOIA requests, it is important that they also promptly identify and adjudicate requests for expedited processing.  OIP’s guidance highlights three areas where agencies can focus to ensure that they are providing timely determinations on requests for expediting processing.  Agencies should:

  1. Screen all FOIA requests at the time of receipt to determine whether expedited processing has been requested.

  2. Be alert to requests for expedition that may be made after the initial request is submitted.

  3. Establish clear coordination procedures with other offices that are involved in making the determination on a request for expedited processing.

The full text of the guidance, along with all other guidance issued by OIP, is available on our guidance page.  OIP encourages agencies to review their procedures for adjudicating requests for expedited processing to ensure that they are efficiently and effectively fulfilling this discrete aspect of FOIA administration. 

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Thursday, December 18, 2014

OIP’s ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops continued last week with a panel of experts discussing how to utilize technology to improve agency FOIA processes. This series, designed as a part of the United States' Second Open Government National Action Plan commitment to further modernize FOIA, aims to leverage effective strategies from across the government by highlighting and sharing successes achieved by agencies on a wide range of FOIA issues.

In his FOIA Memorandum, President Obama called on agencies to “use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government.” This message is echoed by Attorney General Holder in his FOIA Guidelines, noting that “[o]pen government requires agencies to work proactively and respond to requests promptly.” In their Chief FOIA Officer Reports each year, agencies continue to detail the steps they have taken to utilize advanced or new technologies to improve or find efficiencies in their administration of the FOIA.

The panel for this event included Doug Hibbard, Senior Advisor to the Initial Request Staff at OIP, Michael Norman, Director of FOIA Technology with the Privacy Office at the Department of Homeland Security, and Joan Fina, Assistant General Counsel at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Each panelist discussed steps and best practices they have implemented when incorporating technology into their FOIA processing, including:

  • Leveraging all available agency resources – Technology tools may have various uses and even those not specifically designed for FOIA can help create efficiencies in the FOIA process. By leveraging tools already available at an agency, FOIA professionals can potentially implement, and realize the benefits of, new technologies faster than if looking outside the agency.

  • Actively collaborating with technology professionals – Collaborating and working with an agency’s technology professionals can help identify available tools that can be leveraged for an agency's FOIA office. Such collaborations can also help set clear expectations for what is needed in technology tools as well as help both FOIA and technology professionals understand their role in the process of using and supporting the use of such tools. These collaborations do not necessarily have to be confined to within an agency, as professionals from across the government may be able to offer additional best practices, tools, or other assistance when seeking to implement new technologies for FOIA administration.

  • Examining different uses of technology for benefits throughout the entire FOIA process – While many agencies have focused on finding tools that help with the searchability and processing of responsive documents, there are a number of other tools or uses of technology that can also be very helpful for an agencies' FOIA administration. For example, within agencies the use of improved networks and online platforms to move responsive records between offices, to collaborate on FOIA processing, to facilitate teleworking, and to track workflow metrics can all be particularly useful for finding efficiencies. Electronic communication with requesters, including the sending of responsive records in electronic formats, should be the default for agencies.  Not only is this more customer friendly, but it is a much more efficient method of communication for both agencies and requesters.

  • Continually evaluating the effectiveness of tools – Flexible approaches to technology implementation are needed, as not every tool will work for every agency and existing tools may no longer be effective. By regularly evaluating tools, agencies can assess their effectiveness, identify best practices for their use, and work to identify opportunities for the incorporation of new tools.

The speakers at this event all noted that the incorporation of any new technology into the FOIA process is not just the job of FOIA professionals, but it requires the work of multiple staffs within an agency. Collaboration between FOIA and technology professionals can help overcome obstacles to the implementation of new technologies as well as uncover additional tools that may be useful in administering the FOIA. Additionally, the speakers all highlighted how the use of advanced document review tools, such as functions provided by eDiscovery tools, can help create efficiencies and time savings in FOIA administration by reducing the time needed to search for and de-duplicate records, thereby allowing FOIA professionals to spend more time reviewing located documents.

The Best Practices series seeks to provide FOIA professionals from around the government the opportunity to hear from individuals who have experience within a particular topic in order to leverage the experiences of others in their own FOIA process. As highlighted by the panel at this event, opportunities exist to identify or leverage technology tools in order to find efficiencies across the government.

The Best Practices Workshop series will continue on February 11, 2015, when a panel of agency personnel will discuss the topic of customer service and dispute resolution. If you are interested in attending this event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “February Best Practices Workshop.” If you have any questions regarding the series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information about these events and about other training opportunities offered by OIP.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Thursday, November 6, 2014
OIP Dir. Melanie Ann Pustay with Amy Bennet, Josh Gerstein, and Elizabeth Hempowicz
Director Melanie Ann Pustay with Panelists Amy Bennett, Josh Gerstein, and Elizabeth Hempowicz

Last week, OIP’s ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops continued with a panel discussion on best practices from the perspective of the FOIA requester. Designed as a part of the United States' Second Open Government National Action Plan commitment to  further modernize FOIA, the best practices workshop series highlights agency achievements on a wide range of FOIA issues in order to share and leverage successful strategies across the government.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have both emphasized the importance of good customer service in FOIA by calling on agencies to work with requesters “in a spirit of cooperation.” As reported every year in agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports, since the issuance of the President's and Attorney General's 2009 FOIA Memoranda the government overall has taken a number of steps focused on enhancing customer service in the administration of the FOIA.  One of the best ways to hear about these successes and to learn how we can further improve is by listening to the FOIA requester community that we serve. 

Last week's panel which was comprised of representatives from civil society and the media provided agency attendees with the opportunity to do just that. Serving on the panel at this event were Amy Bennett from OpenTheGovernment.org, Elizabeth Hempowicz from the Project on Government Oversight, and Josh Gerstein from Politico. Each detailed the steps and best practices they have seen or would like to see from agencies in their administration of the FOIA.

Though a number of examples were mentioned by the panel, a common theme throughout the workshop was the importance of frequent, substantive, and effective communications by agencies when working through the processing of FOIA requests. The panel highlighted that the ability to discuss details about their request with the agency, such as the scope of the request, the timing of the agency's response, fee issues, or procedural requirements, makes it easier for them to understand the overall process and to work with the agency to identify efficiencies in processing the request.

Since 2010 OIP has issued a number of guidance articles on the importance of good communication and working with requesters in a spirit of cooperation, all of which are available on our guidance page. Many of the examples highlighted by the panel are discussed in these guidance articles, such as the proper procedures for making referrals to other government entities and ensuring that requesters have access to an agency phone number or contact to discuss the status and processing of requests. Agencies should be sure to familiarize themselves with the guidance to ensure they are effectively and efficiently communicating with requesters.

The Best Practices Workshop series will continue on December 9, when a panel of agency personnel will highlight their experiences in implementing technology tools and solutions in order to improve FOIA processing. If you are interested in attending this event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “December Best Practices Workshop.” If you have any questions regarding the series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information about these events and about other training opportunities offered by OIP.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Friday, October 17, 2014

Last week, the White House Open Government Team and OIP co-hosted a proactive disclosure workshop, bringing together a diverse set of government personnel to brainstorm how agencies can improve their processes for proactively providing information to the public.

Attendees at OIP's Proactive Disclosure Event

As a part of his FOIA Memorandum, the President directed agencies to “take affirmative steps to make information public.” Additionally, Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines stressed that “agencies should readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request” and that “effective FOIA administration belongs to all of us.”

Since the issuance of these memoranda, agencies have engaged in a range of initiatives to improve proactive disclosures. Building off these efforts, and in response to the President’s and Attorney General’s directives, last week’s event brought together various personnel from agency FOIA, open data, and communications offices to discuss their roles in their agency’s proactive disclosure process and how through collaboration they can further improve such processes.

A collaborative agency approach to proactive disclosures was highlighted as a best practice at OIP’s July workshop on this same topic, and encouraging this type of dialogue was the basis for last week’s event. Over the course of the event, participants noted that just their preparation for the workshop provided immediate benefits as even their initial cross-agency collaboration generated new ideas on how to identify and make proactive disclosures.

Attendees at OIP's Proactive Disclosure Event

In the first breakout session of the event, the participants were grouped according to their specialty, with all the FOIA professionals forming one group, the data experts forming another group, and the public relations specialists forming the third group.  Participants discussed best practices they had identified at their agencies as well as common challenges they face with regard to proactive disclosures. When discussing obstacles, participants also brainstormed ideas for overcoming such challenges. During the second breakout session, the participants got back together with their colleagues from their own agencies to discuss what they had learned in the first session and how they could apply those lessons to their own proactive disclosure processes. The participants were all energized about the possibilities that their cross-agency collaboration could achieve.

This event is just one step in our efforts to assist agencies in improving their proactive disclosure process. OIP and the White House Open Government Team will continue to work with the agencies that participated in the event as they apply the information learned and put it into practice. In the future, we will plan to hold additional events on this topic for other interested agencies. We look forward to seeing how the collaboration between and across agency offices can help improve proactive disclosures and access to information.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

As part of OIP's responsibility to encourage agency compliance with the FOIA, each year we offer a number of regularly scheduled training opportunities designed to educate agency personnel on how to implement the various provisions of the statute. For Fiscal Year 2015, the dates and topics for some of our scheduled training sessions are:

The FOIA for Attorneys and Access Professionals
December 2-3, 2014 
February 24-25, 2015

May 12-13, 2015
July 14-15, 2015

Advanced FOIA Seminar
April 15, 2015

Introduction to the FOIA
March 25, 2015

FOIA Litigation Seminar
October 22, 2014

Each of these seminars will be held in Washington, DC, and are open to all federal government employees. Descriptions of these seminars and training materials are available on the Training page of OIP’s website.

OIP also offers various other training opportunities and workshops throughout the year, such as our Best Practices Workshop series and refresher training on agency Annual FOIA Report and Chief FOIA Officer Report requirements. Details on these and all training opportunities offered by OIP will continue to be announced here on FOIA Post and through OIP’s Twitter account, @FOIAPost.

To register for any of the above training seminars, please e-mail your name to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov. In the subject line of your e-mail, please specify the name and date of the course that you are seeking to attend.  Any questions regarding these training opportunities may also be directed to OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October 1st marked the beginning of Fiscal Year 2015, and with the start of the new fiscal year, agencies will begin working on preparing three important reports. The three FOIA reports – the Annual FOIA Report, the Quarterly FOIA Reports, and the Chief FOIA Officer Report – illustrate all the hard work of agencies' FOIA offices over this past year as well as the great work that will be done in the upcoming year.  In order to satisfy their reporting obligations this year, agencies should mark the following deadlines in their calendars:

Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Report
December 5, 2014 – Agencies are required to submit their Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Reports to OIP for review

For guidance on the requirements for completing the Annual FOIA Report, please see the Department’s Annual FOIA Report Handbook.

Fiscal Year 2015 Quarterly FOIA Reports
January 30, 2015 – Quarter 1 data is required to be posted in accordance with OIP's Guidance
April 24, 2015 – Quarter 2 data is required to be posted in accordance with OIP's Guidance
July 31, 2015 – Quarter 3 data is required to be posted in accordance with OIP's Guidance
October 30, 2015 – Quarter 4 data is required to be posted in accordance with OIP's Guidance

2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
January 16, 2015 – The twenty-nine high volume agencies noted in the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines are required to submit their 2015 Reports to OIP for review

February 6, 2015 – All other agencies are required to submit their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to OIP for review

March 16, 2015 – Agencies are required to post their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports online

For guidance on the requirements for completing the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report, please see OIP's 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines.

As noted previously on FOIA Post, today OIP held a refresher training for agency personnel on the preparation of both the Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Report and the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Report.

If you have any questions regarding any of the deadlines noted above, or the requirements for completing any of the reports, please contact OIP’s FOIA Compliance Team at (202) 514-3642.

You can see all of these reporting deadlines, as well as training and event dates, on the Key Dates page of OIP’s website.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The next workshop in OIP’s Best Practices Workshop series is focused on the topic of best practices in FOIA administration from the requester’s perspective. Originally scheduled for Wednesday, October 15th, this event has been moved to Tuesday, October 28th. The updated details for this event are:

FOIA Best Practices Workshop
Best Practices from the Requester's Perspective
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution, Ave. NW – Great Hall
October 28, 2014, 10:00am – noon

You will need a picture ID to enter the building for this event.

As with the July event, this workshop is open to interested members of the public as well as all agency personnel. If you had previously registered for this event, you will continue to be registered for the new date and OIP’s Training Officer will contact you to confirm your registration.

If you have not yet registered and are interested in attending this event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “October 28th Best Practices Workshop.”  As space for this meeting is limited, registration is required to attend.  If you have any questions regarding this event or the Best Practices series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

As this series continues, we hope that FOIA professionals continue to learn from one another and the public in order to leverage the successes of others in their own organizations for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government. 

Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for all news about this and future events in the Best Practices series.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines direct agency Chief FOIA Officers to “review all aspects of their agencies’ FOIA administration” and to report each year to the Department of Justice on the steps taken “to improve FOIA operations and facilitate information disclosure at their agencies.”  Pursuant to the Attorney General's Guidelines, each year OIP provides specific guidance on the content and timing of these reports.  Today, we are issuing the guidelines for agencies' 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.

Over the last five years, OIP’s guidelines for agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports have required agencies to examine five key areas addressed in the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines. These five key areas of FOIA administration include:

  1. Applying the Presumption of Openness,
  2. Ensuring that there are Effective Systems for Responding to Requests,
  3. Increasing Proactive Disclosures,
  4. Increasing the Utilization of Technology, and
  5. Improving Timeliness and Reducing Backlogs.

This year’s Chief FOIA Officer Report guidelines continue to build off of the efforts and initiatives reported in previous years and are designed to capture the more advanced steps taken by agencies in their administration of the FOIA.  The Guidelines also continue to focus on certain key areas where further improvements can be made.

For 2015, OIP is making a significant change from prior years' Chief FOIA Officer Reports by creating streamlined reporting requirements for agencies that receive a lower volume of requests, i.e., less than 1,000 incoming requests.  By providing these lower-volume agencies with separate reporting requirements, we can more easily address the realities and needs of agencies with smaller FOIA administrations.  For those agencies with more than 1,000 requests a year, the guidelines continue to be quite comprehensive.  Other new topics in the guidelines include:

  • Agency FOIA Fee Communications,
  • Systems for Proactive Disclosures and Identifying Frequently Requested Records, and
  • Processes for Routing Misdirected Requests at Decentralized Agencies.

OIP has identified twenty-nine agencies that received over 1,000 requests during the most recent year of available data and has listed them in the Guidelines as the “high-volume” agencies.  Those agencies must submit their draft 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to OIP for review by no later than January 16, 2015.  The remaining agencies, all of which received less than 1,000 requests during the most recent year of available data (and not listed specifically in the Guidelines) must submit their draft reports for review by no later than February 6, 2015.  Additional details on the review and submission process are available in the Guidelines.

OIP will once again host a refresher training seminar on October 7, 2014, covering agency preparation of both the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports and the Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Reports.  The details for that training are:

Refresher Training for FY 2014 Annual FOIA Reports and 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution Ave., NW – Great Hall
October 7, 2014, 10:00am – 12:30pm

Training is open to agency Chief FOIA Officers, Principal FOIA Contacts, and any other agency personnel who prepare Annual FOIA Reports and/or Chief FOIA Officer Reports (including appropriate IT staff)

If you are interested in attending this refresher training seminar, please e-mail your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “Annual Report and Chief FOIA Officer Report Refresher Training.”  Please note that registration is required to attend and that you will need a picture ID to enter the building.  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Monday, September 8, 2014

As part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan's commitment to modernizing FOIA, we have been working on a number of initiatives this summer that will further improve the overall administration of the FOIA for both agencies and requesters. One of these initiatives is the development of a consolidated FOIA service for making requests. 

Currently one hundred agencies are subject to the FOIA, and requesters must submit their FOIA requests directly to each agency. Through the National Action Plan, the Administration has committed to launching a consolidated request portal that will allow the public to submit a request to any federal agency from a single website and that includes additional tools to improve the customer experience. 

The Department of Justice and a number of other agencies have been working closely on this project with a dedicated team from the General Services Administration’s 18F group, which help “agencies deliver on their mission through the development of digital and web services.” The team has been exploring building tools that improve the FOIA request submission experience, that create scalable infrastructure for making requests to agencies, and that make it easier for requesters to find records and other information that have already been made available online. 

The team from 18F has posted a blog post about the great work they have been doing on 18F's website. Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for updates on this and other FOIA initiatives from the Second Open Government National Action Plan.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Tuesday, August 26, 2014

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the issuance of Attorney General Holder's FOIA Guidelines, and the fifth year that agencies have published their Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Since 2010, agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports have served as a valuable resource for agencies to detail their efforts in improving their FOIA administration and implementing the President's and Attorney General's FOIA Memoranda.The information reported annually in these reports describing the steps agencies have taken “to improve FOIA operations and facilitate information disclosure” continues to demonstrate how agencies are answering the Attorney General’s call to be “fully accountable for [their] administration of the FOIA.” With the issuance of agencies' 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports during this past Sunshine Week, OIP has once again prepared a summary and assessment of the progress made in implementing the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines.

In an effort to provide a timely overview of the information provided in agencies' 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, this year for the first time OIP provided its summary of the Chief FOIA Officer Reports in a five-part series on FOIA Post that began during Sunshine Week 2014. Agencies and the public are encouraged to review this series and the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies to learn more about all of the efforts made this past year to improve FOIA administration.   

Complementing this five-part series, OIP’s 2014 Assessment provides a visual snapshot of several key areas of FOIA administration. For 2014, OIP has expanded the assessment in several ways to provide greater detail as to the levels of success achieved by agencies during the reporting period. In addition to adding several new milestones, the 2014 Assessment now includes:

  • An expanded five-step scoring system – In an effort to add greater gradation that more accurately illustrates the levels of success achieved by agencies, OIP uses an expanded five step scoring system for certain milestones in the 2014 Assessment.

  • Overall scores for each assessed section – An overall agency score is also provided for each of the assessed sections.   

  • Additional narrative information from agency reports – Agencies provide a wealth of information as a part of their Chief FOIA Officer Reports that do not lend themselves to scoring, but are still very informative as to their efforts to improve their FOIA administration.  The 2014 Assessment includes a range of narrative information that provides greater context to the milestones that are scored. 

  • Detailed Methodology – In an effort to provide greater clarity as to how OIP scored agencies in this year’s assessment, for the first time OIP is providing a detailed methodology of how each question was scored.  

The full assessment will once again also be provided in an open, machine readable (CSV) format.  As part of the assessment, OIP has also included guidance based on our review to assist agencies in making further improvements in the years ahead.

Finally, as in past years, OIP has also compiled a collection of success stories in FOIA administration from key agencies. This collection, and those from previous years, can be viewed on the Reports page of OIP’s website.

As demonstrated by the Summary, Assessment, and Success Stories from agencies' 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies continue to apply the presumption of openness, employ innovative and creative solutions in order to find efficiencies, increase proactive disclosures, and improve their administration of the FOIA. At the same time, the level of success achieved by agencies in these efforts varies and there is still work to be done. OIP’s yearly assessment is intended to serve as a vehicle for both agencies and the public to recognize and celebrate agency successes and also to identify areas where further improvements can be made.    

You may view OIP’s 2014 Summary and Assessment, along with summaries and assessments from previous years, and the agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports themselves, on our Reports page.

You may also read each of the posts summarizing the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports on FOIA Post (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V).

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Thursday, August 14, 2014

As all agencies know, reducing backlogs of pending requests and improving timeliness is a key aspect of FOIA administration. 

Given its importance OIP selected this topic to be the focus of the first Best Practices Workshops convened by OIP to fulfill one of the Administration's five FOIA modernization commitments outlined in the second National Action Plan.

At this workshop, speakers from five different agencies shared with other FOIA professionals their successes in reducing backlogs and improving timeliness.  While each faced different challenges, the methods employed by the five agencies featured some common themes. 

The speakers addressed the importance of: 

  • Obtaining leadership supportto obtain personnel and resources, to get buy-in from program offices, to increase awareness, to spread responsibility and ensure greater accountability
     
  • Routinely reviewing processing metrics to ensure oldest cases are handled each year, to make changes as needed during the course of the year, to identify common requests and trends as part of “Intelligent Case Management,” to troubleshoot
     
  • Ensuring accountability to motivate and reward personnel, to engage all members of the agency with a role in the process
     
  • Engaging with FOIA staff – to train and encourage, to answer questions, to simplify processes and improve quality as well as quantity  

In these times of lean resources and competing priorities, the challenges in this area can be many.  As the discussion illustrated, however,   many agencies have found success by first carefully studying their processing systems and policies and then implementing targeted solutions to gain efficiencies.  Today, OIP is issuing guidance for all agencies based on the discussion at the workshop.  Reducing backlogs and improving timeliness requires an active, aggressive, and multi-pronged approach.  Employing these methods can help all agencies realize improvements in this area.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Friday, July 18, 2014

OIP’s Best Practices Panel (from left to right): Vanessa Brinkmann (OIP), Melanie Ann Pustay (OIP), Karen Finnegan (Dept. of Sta
OIP’s Best Practices Panel (from left to right): Vanessa Brinkmann (OIP), Melanie Ann Pustay (OIP), Karen Finnegan (Dept. of State), Martin Michalosky (CFPB), Erie Meyer (OSTP), and Mark Graff (NRC)

OIP’s ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops continued yesterday with a panel discussing proactive disclosures and how agencies can make information posted online more useful to interested parties.  The workshop series, designed as a part of the Administration’s efforts to modernize and improve FOIA administration, looks to showcase successes achieved by agencies across the government on a wide range of FOIA issues and to share successful strategies so that agencies can learn from one another.

The systematic and regular posting of information online by federal agencies in advance of receiving a FOIA request is an important aspect of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, and yesterday’s panel highlighted the creative and innovative ways that agencies are working to not only increase the amount of material made available online, but also the steps they are making to make such material more useful.  Serving on today’s panel were Erie Meyer from the Office of Science & Technology Policy, Vanessa Brinkmann from OIP, Karen Finnegan from the Department of State, Mark Graff from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Martin Michalosky from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

Each of the speakers detailed the steps and best practices they had utilized in order to carry out the important task of making meaningful and useful proactive disclosures, including:

  • Engaging with programmatic offices – By actively engaging with record creators at an agency, FOIA offices can identify potential proactive disclosures with more ease, and can work with those offices to make the posting of the material more efficient.
  • Making online information usable, not just accessible – Agencies continue to make strides in making online information more usable as they are also making more information available including posting in open formats, creating topical websites, or employing special search engines.
  • Utilizing available expertise outside of the FOIA office – Just as engaging with programmatic offices can help FOIA professionals locate potential proactive disclosures, leveraging available expertise from inside an agency (such as a Chief Information Officer) or from across the government (such Project Open Data or the 18F innovation lab) can help agencies unlock proactive disclosures that may be waiting at their agency.
  • Collaborating with stakeholders outside of agencies – Working with the public and interested agency stakeholders can allow FOIA offices to focus their efforts on particular types of proactive disclosures or identify useful formats that agencies can post information in.

Many of today’s speakers noted how their proactive disclosure processes benefited from the use of new technologies to post information in new ways in order to better serve their requester community and agency stakeholders.  A common theme from each member of the panel was how the implementation of an effective proactive disclosure process has helped create efficiencies in their agency’s FOIA operations overall.  Based on yesterday’s discussion and the importance of proactive disclosures to the FOIA process, OIP will continue to explore opportunities for specialized training in this area including a session on the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act when agencies post information online.

The goal of this series is to provide agency personnel with the opportunity to hear from individuals who have faced similar challenges in order to leverage successes achieved by others for their own administration of the FOIA.  As seen today, opportunities exist to utilize experiences from around the government in order to improve proactive disclosure processes and make posted information more useful to the public.

The Best Practices Workshop series continues October 15, where a panel from the open government and FOIA requester communities will highlight agency best practices they have experienced while working through the FOIA process.  Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information about these events and about other training opportunities offered by OIP.  

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Friday, July 18, 2014

Each year, federal departments and agencies are required by law to submit a report to the Attorney General detailing various statistics regarding their agency’s FOIA activities, such as the numbers of requests processed and received, and the time taken to process them.  These Annual FOIA Reports, ninety-nine in total for FY 2013, are compiled by OIP and posted on the Reports page of our site.  The data from the agency Annual FOIA Reports is also uploaded onto FOIA.gov, the Justice Department’s government-wide FOIA resource.

In order to provide agency personnel and the public with a comprehensive picture of the government’s FOIA activities during the fiscal year, OIP routinely creates a summary of the information contained within agency Annual FOIA Reports.  Today, we posted our summary of these reports for FY 2013 (PDF).  As in previous years, the summary looks at government-wide data for many key statistics in FOIA administration and highlights significant numbers reported by individual agencies.  Additionally, the summary identifies trends in FOIA processing by comparing the FY 2013 Annual FOIA Report data with data from prior fiscal years.

As described in this year’s summary, during FY 2013 the government overall showed good progress in a number of areas despite difficult challenges and an ever increasing demand of incoming FOIA requests.  During FY 2013, the government overall received a record high 704,394 requests, and in response to this high demand, agencies processed a record high 678,391 requests.  While this impressive effort was not enough to offset the increase of incoming requests for overall backlog reduction, many individual agencies were able to reduce their backlog of requests in FY 2013.  Further, seventy three of the ninety-nine agencies reported low backlogs of 100 requests or fewer, with twenty-nine of those agencies reporting no backlogs at all.  The government overall also continued to maintain a high release rate of over 91% and it improved its average processing times for simple track requests.

OIP’s Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for FY 2013 is available on our Reports page where it can be compared with previous summaries dating back to FY 2006.  The data collected in agency Annual FOIA Reports can also easily be viewed, compared, and analyzed on FOIA.gov.

 
Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Thursday, July 10, 2014

As a part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan’s commitment to modernizing FOIA, OIP launched a new series of workshops focused on agency best practices in FOIA administration.  Next week OIP is hosting the second event in this Best Practices Workshop series on the topic of proactive disclosures and making posted information more useful for the public.  We are pleased to open this event to interested members of the public as well agency personnel.  

Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines encourage agencies to “readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request.”  While increasing their proactive disclosures, agencies are also finding new and creative ways of making the information they post online easier to find and more useful to the public.  At this event, a panel of representatives from the Office of Science & Technology Policy, OIP, the Department of State, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will share their success stories and strategies on improving their proactive disclosures. 

As agencies continue to make progress in this area, it is important that they interact with the public in order to learn their needs and better understand how they access government information online.  To further that exchange, OIP is opening this event in the Best Practices Workshop series to the public. The details for next week’s event are:

FOIA Best Practices Workshop
Proactive Disclosures & Making Online Information More Useful
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution Ave. NW – Great Hall
July 17, 2014, 10:00am – noon

You will need a picture ID to enter the building for this event.

The first event in this series focused on how agencies can reduce backlogs of FOIA requests and improve timeliness, and the panel of agency representatives identified a number of common approaches that they had each taken to achieve success in this important area.  As this series continues, we hope that FOIA professionals continue to learn from one another and leverage the successes of others in their own organizations for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government.

If you are interested in attending next week’s event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “July Best Practices Workshop.”  As space for this meeting is limited, registration is required to attend.  If you have any questions regarding this event or the Best Practices series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Last month, agency FOIA professionals and representatives from the FOIA requester community gathered together at OIP for the most recent FOIA Requester Roundtable.  The topic of this meeting was how agencies provide estimated dates of completion to FOIA requesters.  The roundtable focused on the statutory requirements of the FOIA to assign tracking numbers to requests and provide status information to requesters, including:

  • Subsection (a)(7)(A) - requiring agencies to assign an individualized tracking number to requests that will take longer than ten days to process, and
  • Subsection (a)(7)(B) – requiring agencies to establish a telephone line or Internet service that requesters can use to inquire about the status of their requests using the request’s assigned tracking number. 

After discussing the legal requirements of these provisions during the meeting, attendees shared a number of best practices for calculating estimated dates of completions, methods for providing this information to requesters, and the importance of good communication between agencies and the requester. OIP has previously issued guidance to agencies on the FOIA’s requirements to assign tracking numbers and provide status information for requests and today, OIP is issuing an updated version of that guidance.  This guidance further clarifies agencies' responsibilities under these statutory provisions, and can be found on the Guidance page of our website.

For further information about training and outreach opportunities from OIP, please visit our Training page.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Over the last five years, agency Chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Officer Reports have provided detailed descriptions of agency efforts to improve FOIA administration in five key areas addressed by Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines.  As part of a five-part series which started during Sunshine Week 2014, OIP continues to highlight some of the successes in these five key areas as reported by agencies in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports

Improving Timeliness in Responding to Requests and Reducing Backlogs

Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the importance of improving timeliness in responding to requests.  In his FOIA Memorandum issued on his first full day in office, President Obama directed agencies to “act promptly” when responding to requests.  Attorney General Holder similarly emphasized in his FOIA Guidelines that “[t]imely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency . . . [and that] [l]ong delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand.”  For the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies were asked to provide detailed information on their average processing times for simple requests and their efforts to reduce backlogs and close their ten oldest requests, appeals, and consultations.  Those agencies that had a request backlog of over 1,000, and did not reduce that backlog, were also required to provide a plan for achieving backlog reduction in the year ahead.  Likewise, agencies that did not close their ten oldest requests, appeals, or consultations were required to describe their plans for closing those requests, appeals or consultations by the next fiscal year. 

Because of the strong correlation between the type of request that is made and the ability of the agency to respond to that request more quickly, in 2012, OIP established a milestone that addresses whether the agency overall responded to requests in its simple track within an average of twenty working days or less.  Agencies were once again required to report on this metric in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  Sixty-three agencies, including seven of the fifteen cabinet level agencies, reported that they were either able to process their simple-track requests in an average of twenty-working days or less, or if they did not utilize multi-track processing, they were able to process all of their non-expedited requests within that average timeframe. 

With regard to request backlogs, fifty-five agencies reported that they were either able to reduce the number of requests in their backlog at the end of Fiscal Year 2013 or they had no backlog to reduce.  Additionally, four agencies reported no change in their request backlog, and twelve agencies reported a slight increase of up to five backlogged requests.  Twenty-eight agencies experienced a backlog increase of more than five requests.  Notably, however, seventy-three agencies were able to maintain a small request backlog of 100 requests or less, with twenty-nine of these agencies reporting no backlog at all.

For administrative FOIA appeals, seventy-three agencies reported that they were either able to reduce the number of appeals in their backlog at the end of Fiscal Year 2013 or they had no backlog to reduce.  Three agencies had no change in their appeals backlog, and fifteen agencies reported a slight increase of up to five backlogged appeals.  While eight agencies reported a backlog increase of over five appeals, a total of eighty-two agencies maintained a backlog of twenty or less appeals.

As with previous years, agencies that experienced an increase in their request or appeal backlogs explained the causes that contributed to those increases in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Some of the common factors reported by agencies included an increase in the number of incoming requests, loss of FOIA staff, and an increase in the complexity of the requests or appeals received by the agency.   

A critical element of the government's efforts to reduce backlogs and answer the President's and Attorney General’s call to provide timely disclosures of information is closing the ten oldest pending requests, appeals, and consultations at each agency every year.  Sixty-eight agencies reported that they were either able to close all ten of their oldest requests from Fiscal Year 2012 by the end of Fiscal Year 2013, or they had no ten oldest to close.  With regard to appeals, eighty agencies were either able to close their ten oldest pending appeals or they had no ten oldest to close.  Finally, ninety-three agencies were able to close their ten oldest pending consultations or they continued to maintain no pending consultations at the end of the fiscal year. 

Agencies were also asked to report in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports on whether they have a system in place for providing requesters substantive interim responses when appropriate.  In the spirit of providing more timely disclosures of information, OIP issued guidance in 2010 to agencies encouraging the use of interim releases whenever a request involves a voluminous amount of material or a search in multiple locations is required.  The vast majority of agencies reported that they did have a process in place for making interim responses.  Additionally, each agency reported an estimate of the number of cases in their backlog for which an interim response was provided. 

This is just a snapshot of agencies' efforts to improve timeliness and reduce backlogs.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for a more comprehensive view of agency progress in this area. 

As with previous years, this summer OIP will once again publish its assessment of agencies' implementation of the President's and Attorney General's FOIA Memoranda based on agency Annual and Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information on the Department’s continuing efforts to improve both transparency and understanding of the FOIA.

You can read previous posts in this series on FOIA Post (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV).  

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post

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