Update: This post, originally published July 28, 2015, has been updated with new date information regarding the workshop on Self-Assessments and Internal Reviews.
As a part of the United States’ Second Open Government National Action Plan commitment to further modernize FOIA, in 2014 OIP launched the Best Practices Workshop series as a way to share and leverage successes in FOIA administration across the government. Today we are announcing details for the second slate of topics and workshops in this series.
Each workshop in the series focuses on a specific topical area and will include a panel of representatives that will share their success stories and strategies. For example, some of the topics covered in the first series of workshops included panels on reducing backlogs, proactive disclosures, and implementing technology in FOIA administration. The new workshop topics were selected based on feedback solicited from both federal agencies and the public. This series continues to be an opportunity for professionals at every level of the FOIA process to learn from one another and to leverage the successes of other agencies for their own organizations.
The workshops are open to all agency FOIA professionals and interested personnel. We will also continue to invite representatives from civil society and the public to participate in certain workshops. The dates, locations, and topics for each workshop are:
Best Practices for Small Agencies
August 26, 2015, 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness
December 8, 2015, 10:00 am to 12 noon – Robert F. Kennedy Building
Self-Assessments and Internal Reviews
January 7, 2016, 10:00 am to 12 noon - NEW DATE
Best Practices from the Requester’s Perspective
March 16, 2016, 10:00 am to 12 noon
FOIA Training Programs
May 25, 2016, 10:00 am to 12 noon
All workshops unless otherwise indicated will be held at the Department of Justice’s Conference Center near 1st and N Street NE. Registration for all workshops is required for attendance and you will need a picture ID to enter the designated Department facility for any of these workshops.
The August, October, December, and May workshops will feature different panels of agency representatives. The March workshop will feature a panel of civil society and requester community representatives to highlight some of the agency best practices they have experienced while working through the FOIA process.
After each event, the best practices discussed by the panel, as well as other resources, will be added to the Best Practices Workshop Series page of our website as a resource for all agencies and interested individuals. Information, best practices, and resources from the first slate of workshops is also available on this page as well.
If you are interested in attending any of these events, you can register by emailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “[Month] Best Practices Workshop.” If registering multiple individuals, please include the email addresses of all registrants. If you have any questions regarding the series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.
As we hold these workshops, we continue to invite your suggestions on future meeting topics and potential panelists. If you would like to participate as a panelist or recommend someone for any of the above scheduled workshops, please email us at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “Best Practices Workshop Suggestion.”
Earlier this year, OIP announced the availability of new electronic FOIA training resources at an event attended by representatives from across the federal government. The four new resources were designed to ensure that individuals at all levels of federal service have access to quality FOIA training, reinforcing the Department of Justice’s message that “FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.” Last month, Acting Associate Attorney General and Justice Department’s Chief FOIA Officer Stuart Delery reiterated this message in a memorandum to agency general counsels and Chief FOIA Officers.
OIP designed these resources to address the unique needs of multiple levels of the federal workforce. The FOIA Infographic is a one-page resource to help new employees understand what the FOIA is and how the FOIA process works at their agencies. An in-depth e-Learning course for FOIA professionals provides a training session on the major procedural and substantive requirements of the law, while a second e-Learning course for federal employees provides a brief primer on the FOIA and the responsibilities of these employees under the law. Finally, a presentation for agency senior executives emphasizes the importance of leadership support for an agency’s FOIA program.
In his memorandum, Acting Associate Attorney General Delery encouraged all “agencies to take advantage of these new training materials” and noted that:
“A proper understanding of the FOIA, including the correct application of the statute’s provisions and the Attorney General’s 2009 FOIA Guidelines, is fundamental to any successful FOIA operation.”
The Acting Associate Attorney General also directed agency leaders to ensure that all agency employees are aware of “the important role they play in implementing [the FOIA].” You can read the full text of this memorandum on our Training page.
Since their announcement, OIP has worked with agencies to ensure the availability of these resources to federal personnel. The FOIA Infographic and Senior Executive Briefing are available directly from our website. The e-Learning courses are designed for use within an agency’s Learning Management System. Requests for these courses, if your agency does not already have access to them, can be directed to our Training Staff at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov. For more information on all of these resources, please visit our Training page.
This week, representatives from the United States Government and the Department of Justice are joining 1,500 participants from governments and civil society organizations around the globe to participate in the 2015 Open Government Partnership (OGP) Summit. Founded in 2011, the Partnership has grown from eight to sixty-six participating countries committed to working both domestically and internationally to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and transform the way the governments serve and engage with the public. Each participating member of the OGP is required to work with civil society to develop an Open Government National Action Plan (NAP), and today the Department is excited to highlight the issuance of the United States' third National Action Plan.
Each country's NAP covers a two year period and includes specific and measurable commitments that advance transparency, accountability, participation and/or technological innovation. The United States' third NAP released yesterday represents its most ambitious and extensive plan consisting of forty-five commitments on a wide range of actions the Administration will take over coming months to strengthen, deepen and expand upon our open government efforts. As with the prior two NAPs, the Department of Justice is proud to be working on a number of initiatives, which promote the principals of open government and together will improve public services, access to information, government integrity and the administration of justice.These commitments include:
Open Government to Improve Public Services
- Making it easier for individuals to access their own information. DOJ will assist an interagency team led by OPM, GSA, and the Department of Commerce to develop new authentication tools to protect individual privacy and ensure that personal records only go to the intended recipients.
Access to Information
- Modernizing the implementation of the FOIA. Building on its efforts to improve the government-wide administration of the FOIA, the Department will expand the services offered on FOIA.gov, conduct a proactive disclosure pilot for posting FOIA-released records online, and improve agency FOIA websites.
- Strengthening and improving transparency of privacy safeguards. The Administration will revise and reconstitute guidance to agencies on the collection and protection of individuals’ personally identifiable information.
- Enhancing transparency of Federal use of investigative technologies. As law enforcement and homeland security have employed new technologies, such as unmanned aircraft systems, the Administration has recognized that these must be used in a manner that protects the privacy and civil liberties of the public. Agencies are encouraged to develop and make public a privacy analysis for advanced technologies.
- Increasing transparency of foreign intelligence surveillance activities. The Administration will increase efforts to make information regarding foreign intelligence surveillance activities more publicly available, while continuing to protect such information when disclosure could harm national security.
- Strengthening whistleblower protection for government employees. The Department of Justice will propose revisions to its regulations providing whistleblower protection procedures for employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), including proposing to expand the list of officials to whom protected disclosures may be made. Additionally, the Department will continue to evaluate and update its mandatory training program to ensure all employees understand their rights and responsibilities under whistleblower protection laws.
Justice and Law Enforcement
- Expand Access to Justice to promote Federal programs. The White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, co-led by the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice, works to raise awareness about the profound impact that legal aid programs can have in advancing efforts to promote access to health and housing, education and employment, family stability, and public safety. On September 24, 2015, President Obama issued a memorandum intended to institutionalize this Roundtable, expand the participating agencies, and include consideration of equal access to justice for low-income people in both the civil and criminal justice systems. The Roundtable will seek input from civil society, and will annually report on the progress of this work.
Since the signing of both his FOIA and Transparency and Open Government memoranda on his first full day in office, President Obama has committed to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.” The U.S. published its first NAP in 2011, with twenty-six commitments that have increased public integrity, enhanced public access to information, improved management of public resources, and given the public a more active voice in the U.S. Government’s policymaking process. In 2013, the U.S. released its second NAP, which included twenty-three commitments. In 2014, the Administration added three additional commitments to the second NAP and further expanded one existing commitment, bringing the total for that plan to twenty-six.
The forty-five commitments in the third NAP issued yesterday build on the commitments fulfilled in the prior two plans. In putting together the third NAP, the U.S. engaged in unprecedented consultations inside and outside of government, including with a broad range of U.S. departments and agencies and subnational governments as well as the general public, civil society groups, foundations, academia, and the private sector. The Department is proud to have worked with the Administration and civil society on the formulation of the plan issued yesterday and looks forward to working on the commitments noted above.
September is the final month of Fiscal Year 2015 and agency FOIA professionals are hard at work processing FOIA requests and administrative appeals in order to close out the year strongly. All the work done by agencies to administer the FOIA each year is captured in their Annual FOIA Reports and Chief FOIA Officer Reports. In addition, during the course of the year four key FOIA statistics are reported every three months in agency Quarterly FOIA Reports. These reports all serve an important role in documenting the efforts of agencies to respond to the ever-increasing numbers of FOIA requests received each year. They also provide valuable information about the many ways agencies are working to find greater efficiencies, increase proactive disclosures and utilize technology to improve FOIA administration.
In order to satisfy their reporting obligations this year, agencies should mark the following deadlines in their calendars:
Fiscal Year 2015 Annual FOIA Report
December 4, 2015 – Agencies are required to submit their Fiscal Year 2015 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 2016 Quarterly FOIA Reports
January 29, 2016 – Quarter 1 data is required to be posted.
April 29, 2016 – Quarter 2 data is required to be posted.
July 29, 2016 – Quarter 3 data is required to be posted.
October 28, 2016 – Quarter 4 data is required to be posted.
For guidance on the requirements for completing the FY 2016 Quarterly Reports, please see OIP’s guidance on quarterly reporting.
2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
January 15, 2016 – The twenty-nine high-volume agencies noted in the 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines are required to submit their 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to OIP for review.
February 5, 2016 – All other agencies are required to submit their 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to OIP for review
March 14, 2016 – Agencies are required to post their 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports online.
For guidance on the requirements for completing the 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Report, see OIP's 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines.
To help assist and prepare agencies for these reporting obligations, OIP will be hosting a refresher training on the Fiscal Year 2015 Annual FOIA Report and 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Report. The details for this training are:
Refresher Training for FY 2015 Annual FOIA Reports and 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
Department of Justice Conference Center
1st and N Street NE, Washington, DC
October 13, 2015, 1:00 – 4:00pm
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 email your name to OIP’s Acting Training Coordinator 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 Acting Training Coordinator at (202) 514-3642.
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 also find all of these reporting deadlines on the Reports page of OIP’s website.
The Attorney General's 2009 FOIA Guidelines directed agency Chief FOIA Officers to “review all aspects of their agencies’ FOIA administration” and to report annually to the Department of Justice on the efforts undertaken “to improve FOIA operations and facilitate information disclosure at their agencies.” In accordance with the 2009 FOIA Guidelines, OIP provides specific guidance each year to agencies on the content and timing of these reports and today we have issued the guidelines for agency 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.
Since 2010, OIP’s guidelines for agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports have required agencies to examine the five key areas addressed in the 2009 FOIA Guidelines:
- Applying the Presumption of Openness,
- Ensuring that there are Effective Systems for Responding to Requests,
- Increasing Proactive Disclosures,
- Increasing the Utilization of Technology, and
- Improving Timeliness and Reducing any Backlogs.
Each year’s reporting guidelines build off the efforts and initiatives reported in the prior years. Our goal is to capture more advanced steps taken by agencies as their implementation of the FOIA Guidelines has matured. This year’s guidelines also continue to focus on certain areas where further improvements can be made.
The 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines maintain the streamlined reporting requirements introduced last year for agencies that receive a lower volume of FOIA requests, i.e. less than 1,000 incoming requests each year. For those agencies with more than 1,000 requests received annually, the guidelines remain quite comprehensive.
As in previous years, OIP has included new questions in the 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines, covering such topics as:
- Plans for ensuring that a high percentage of agency FOIA professionals receive substantive FOIA training,
- Steps to strengthen Requester Service Centers, FOIA Public Liaisons, and dispute resolution services,
- Proper procedures for “still-interested” inquiries,
- The role of FOIA professionals in posting records online, and
- Training conducted for processing tools, such as new case management systems or eDiscovery tools.
OIP has once again identified the twenty-nine agencies that received more than 1,000 requests during the most recent fiscal year of available data and has listed them in this year’s guidelines as “high-volume” agencies. These agencies must submit their draft 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to OIP for review by no later than January 15, 2016.
The remaining agencies must submit their draft reports to OIP for review by no later than February 5, 2016. To assist agencies in the completion of their reports, OIP has created separate templates for large- and small-agencies containing their specific questions from this year’s guidelines.
Additional details on the review and submission process are included in the Guidelines. OIP will once again host a refresher training seminar on the preparation of both the 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports and the Fiscal Year 2015 Annual FOIA Reports. The details for this training will be announced here on FOIA Post.
As Fiscal Year 2015 is quickly drawing to an end, agencies are hard at work processing more and more requests to close out the year strongly. OIP encourages agencies to focus these last weeks of the fiscal year on their FOIA administration to help reduce any backlogs. One of the main tools agencies use for tracking the efficiency of their FOIA workflows and ensuring the accuracy of their Annual FOIA Report is their case management system.
A key component of President Obama's FOIA Memorandum is the direction to "use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government." Over the past several years agencies have reported in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports widespread use of technology in receiving and tracking FOIA requests and preparing agency Annual FOIA Reports.
Agencies currently use various case management systems for tracking and processing their FOIA requests, and each agency should ensure that they are using the system that best serves their particular FOIA needs. As outlined in DOJ's Annual FOIA Report Handbook, agencies are ultimately responsible for the quality of their Annual FOIA Report data. They should exercise due diligence in testing their systems to ensure accuracy for the benefit of both their year-end reports as well as workflow reports that they rely on during the year to manage their FOIA administration.
At the Department of Justice, our components use a number of different methods and tools to track their FOIA requests tailored to their unique needs. OIP has been working with EPA to develop enhancements to FOIAonline, the EPA’s multi-agency FOIA tracking system, that meet our specific needs, and we are pleased to announce that beginning in early 2016, OIP will be using FOIAonline as our case management system. In addition to tracking the requests it processes and the Department’s administrative FOIA appeals, OIP will be using FOIAonline to prepare and validate the Department’s Annual FOIA Report.
OIP's use of FOIAonline builds on the great work between OIP, EPA, and the partner agencies that has existed from the very beginning of FOIAonline. OIP has worked closely with EPA and the FOIAonline partners from the start to ensure the system produces an accurate Annual FOIA Report, as well as to make sure that any enhancements function appropriately in compliance with the FOIA statute and DOJ guidance.
OIP is excited to be working with EPA on the development of additional enhancements to FOIAonline and the future possibilities for how FOIAonline can assist agencies with their FOIA case management needs.
OIP offers a number of FOIA training opportunities throughout the year as a part of our responsibility to encourage agency compliance with the FOIA. For Fiscal Year 2016, the dates and topics for our regularly scheduled training sessions are:
Introduction to the FOIA
April 26, 2016
The FOIA for Attorneys and Access Professionals
November 3-4, 2015
January 26-27, 2016
April 12-13, 2016
July 12-13, 2016
Advanced FOIA Seminar
May 10, 2016
FOIA Litigation Seminar
October 19, 2015
This year, OIP is offering two new courses – a FOIA Processing Workshop and a program entitled Continuing FOIA Education. The FOIA Processing Workshop is a half-day program designed to take attendees through the steps of processing a FOIA request one-on-one in a small class setting. The Continuing FOIA Education course is designed as a program for experienced FOIA professionals with lectures on new or recent developments in FOIA administration as well as an update on recent FOIA court decisions. The dates for these new course offerings are:
FOIA Processing Workshop
February 17, 2016
Continuing FOIA Education
June 1, 2016
All of these seminars will be held in Washington DC, and are open to all federal government employees. Information about registration, general topics covered, and class sizes for each course are available on the Training page of our site. The Training page also includes descriptions of each course, general topics covered, and the intended audience.
In addition to these scheduled training programs, OIP also offers various other training programs and workshops throughout the year such as our Best Practices Workshop series and our refresher training on the preparation of Agency Annual FOIA and Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Details on all of our training opportunities will always be announced here on FOIA Post and through OIP’s Twitter account, @FOIAPost.
To register for any of the training seminars listed above, please email your name to OIP's Training Staff at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov. In the subject line of your email, please specify the name of the course and the date you wish to attend the training. If registering multiple individuals, please include email addresses for each individual in the registration message. Once you are registered, you will be sent a confirmation email with the location of the training. Any questions regarding these training opportunities may also be directed to OIP’s Training Staff at (202) 514-FOIA (3642).
Since 2010, agency Chief FOIA Officers have submitted to the Department of Justice an annual report detailing all of their agency’s efforts in implementing President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Memoranda. These Chief FOIA Officer Reports have served as a valuable resource for agencies to describe the various initiatives undertaken to improve their administration of the FOIA. With the completion of agencies’ 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports this past Sunshine Week, today OIP releases its summary and assessment of these reports and the progress made in implementing Attorney General Holder’s 2009 FOIA Guidelines.
- Applying the Presumption of Openness,
- Having Effective Systems for Responding to Requests,
- Making Information Available Proactively,
- Utilizing Technology, and
- Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness.
Agencies and the public are encouraged to read both OIP’s summary and each agency’s individual report to learn more about the various efforts and steps taken over the last reporting year to improve the administration of the FOIA across the government.
In addition to the summary, OIP’s 2015 assessment once again provides a visual snapshot of agency efforts in several key areas of FOIA administration. The assessment includes all of the enhanced features introduced last year, including an expanded five-step scoring system, overall scores for each assessed section, and the inclusion of a detailed methodology. The full assessment is provided in both an open format and in PDF.
As announced in September 2014, a significant change for agency 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports is the separate reporting requirements for large and small volume FOIA agencies. This difference is incorporated into the 2015 assessment so that the milestones are tailored to the distinctive FOIA processes at different size agencies.
Finally, as a part of the 2015 summary and assessment, OIP has once again included guidance based on our review of the 2015 reports to assist agencies in making further improvements in the years ahead.
Based on our review of agency 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, and as stated in OIP’s summary and assessment, “agencies have persevered through a difficult year of tight resources and ever-increasing demands to continue improving their administration of the FOIA through various initiatives connected to the five key areas of Attorney General Holder's 2009 FOIA Guidelines.” 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 to both recognize agency successes and to identify areas where further improvement can be made.
You can read OIP’s 2015 Summary and Assessment of Agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports on our Reports page alongside previous summaries and assessments. OIP’s guidance for further improvement based on our review of agency 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports is available as a part of this year’s summary as well as on our Guidance page.
This past Fourth of July marked the 49th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which as President Obama declared, "is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government." In celebration of this milestone in the history of this important law, today, the Department of Justice is pleased to announce the launch of a new pilot program at seven agencies designed to test the feasibility of posting online FOIA responses so that they are available not just to the individual requester, but to the general public as well.
The significance of the FOIA was emphasized from the very beginning with Attorney General Clark’s June 1967 memorandum on the implementation of the FOIA. Issued to executive departments and agencies one month before the law took effect, the Attorney General declared:
“If the government is to be truly of, by, and for the people, the people must know in detail the activities of government. Nothing so diminishes democracy as secrecy. Self-government, the maximum participation of the citizenry in affairs of state, is meaningful only with an informed public.”
During the pilot, we seek to answer many 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. For privacy reasons, participating agencies will not post online responses to requests in which individuals seek access to information about themselves.
The agencies participating in the pilot are the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and components or offices of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice, and the National Archives and Records Administration, with OIP leading the effort.
The results of this six-month pilot program will be made available to the public, and we intend to be transparent about the pilots and their implementation by participating agencies. We also invite the public’s feedback as we explore this proposed policy shift, and welcome innovative ideas and suggestions for overcoming the implementation challenges. Comments should be sent to OIP at ReleaseToAll@usdoj.gov.
This week, the Privacy Office at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) became the first federal agency to release a FOIA mobile application. You can read about the features of the new app in a post on DHS’ blog from their Chief Privacy Officer, Karen Neuman which is also reprinted below. OIP applauds the ingenuity of DHS as they implement innovative approaches to FOIA administration.
Submit a FOIA request anytime, anywhere
By: Karen Neuman, Chief Privacy Officer
I am pleased to announce the release of a new mobile application to further simplify and enhance the process for submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The Department of Homeland Security is committed to transparency and accountability and the eFOIA app is the latest in a series of efforts that the DHS Privacy Office has taken to help modernize FOIA processes and improve the customer experience. In fact, this is the first FOIA mobile app in the entire Federal Government.
Using their mobile devices, requesters can now submit requests and check the status of existing requests anyplace, anytime.
Key features of the new eFOIA app will allow users to:
- Submit a FOIA request to any DHS Component
- Check the status of FOIA requests
- Access all of the content on the FOIA website, including the FOIA Library
- Receive updates, changes to events--such as stakeholder meetings/conference calls held by the Department, and recently published documents
DHS receives the largest number of FOIA requests of any federal agency, and produces the largest number of responses. We are continually working to improve our FOIA program by deploying advanced technology both for submitting and processing requests. These efforts include an improved online FOIA submission form, as well as a recently launched online check status capability.
As a result of these efforts, we are starting to see a steady reduction in the FOIA backlog. Since the beginning of Fiscal Year 2015, DHS has reduced its FOIA backlog by 20 percent, from 103,480 to 82,324 as of July 1, 2015.
The DHS Privacy Office created the eFOIA app in partnership with the DHS Office of the Chief Information Officer.
The free app is currently available for all Apple and Android devices.
President Obama and Attorney General Holder emphasized in their FOIA Memoranda the importance of agencies working with FOIA requesters “in a spirit of cooperation.” A key element of that cooperation is establishing and maintaining good communication with requesters. In 2010, before the first anniversary of the issuance of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, the Office of Information Policy (OIP) issued guidance entitled The Importance of Good Communication with FOIA Requesters. That guidance addressed several ways in which agencies could improve their communication practices.
One of the topics addressed in OIP’s 2010 guidance was the use of what is known as a “still-interested” inquiry, i.e., when an agency asks a requester whether he or she remains interested in the continued processing of their request. OIP’s 2010 guidance advised agencies to be “mindful of the manner in which such inquiries are made,” and to afford requesters a reasonable amount of time to indicate their continued interest.
“While use of ‘still-interested’ inquiries is an understandable way to help ensure that agency resources are appropriately spent processing requests for records where the requester remains interested in receiving the documents, it is equally important that requesters are not in any way disadvantaged by their use.”
The new guidance outlines a series of procedures that agencies should use when inquiring whether a requester remains interested in the continued processing of his or her request.
- Reasonable Grounds to Make “Still-Interested” Inquiry in the First Instance – any “still-interested” inquiry should be limited to those situations where the agency has a reasonable basis to conclude that the requester’s interest in the records may have changed;
- Limiting the Number of Times “Still-Interested” Inquiries are Made – absent good cause, agencies should not inquire more than once whether a requester is still interested in the request;
- Using Requester’s Preferred Method of Communicating – email or telephone are often the most efficient ways to communicate with requesters and should be used as the default;
- Providing Requesters with a Reasonable Amount of Time and Method to Respond to “Still-Interested” Inquiries – the time period to allow requesters to respond to “still-interested” inquiries should be no shorter than thirty (30) working days and a simple response over the telephone, a reply to an email, or the checking of a box on a self-addressed form are all examples of easy methods that agencies can make available to requesters so that they can most readily respond to the inquiry; and
- Ensuring Requesters are Not Disadvantaged – in the event a requester responds to a “still-interested” inquiry within a reasonable time after the deadline has passed, agencies should simply reopen the request and place it back into the agency’s queue in the same position it would have been had the “still-interested” inquiry not been sent.
Agencies should review their procedures on the use of “still-interested” inquiries to ensure they are in conformity with this new guidance. OIP has prepared an implementation checklist to assist agencies in doing so.
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, one-hundred in total for FY 2014, 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 2014 (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 2014 Annual FOIA Report data with data from prior fiscal years.
As described in this year’s summary, during FY 2014, agency FOIA Offices received a record high 714,231 requests while also facing several other challenges including reduced staffing, tough fiscal times, and a three week government shutdown during which requests continued to come in when there was no staff available to process them. Managing these challenges, the government overall was able to process 647,142 requests while continuing to maintain a high release rate of over 91% for the sixth year in a row. The government overall also improved its average processing times for simple and complex track requests.
OIP’s Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for FY 2014 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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:
Screen all FOIA requests at the time of receipt to determine whether expedited processing has been requested.
Be alert to requests for expedition that may be made after the initial request is submitted.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.