Justice Blogs

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
Thursday, May 29, 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 GuidelinesAs part of a 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

Steps Taken to Greater Utilize Technology

A key component of the President’s FOIA Memorandum is the call for agencies to “use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government.”  In response to this directive, agencies have utilized advanced technology to not only make more information available online and improve their websites, but also to assist in their overall administration of the FOIA.  Each year, OIP asks agencies to describe in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports the steps they have taken to greater utilize technology in their FOIA administration. 

As a part of the first Chief FOIA Officer Reports, submitted in 2010, agencies were surveyed to determine the extent to which they were using technology to receive, track, and process requests, and to prepare their Annual FOIA Reports.  As has been done for each section of the Chief FOIA Officer Report, every year OIP has refined the questions for this section as the use of technology in FOIA has matured.  For 2014, agencies were asked to report on whether they provide requesters the ability to track the status of their requests online, and if so, to provide details regarding the functionality of such online services.   Agencies were also asked to report on the extent to which they are using more advanced technologies to assist with the processing of requests.  Finally, agencies were asked whether there were any additional tools that would be helpful to achieving further efficiencies at their agency.

Over a quarter of the agencies reported offering requesters the ability to track the status of requests online, with decentralized agencies like the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Interior offering such services for all of their components.  The form and functionality of the online tracking provided by these agencies varies.  For example, a number of agencies reported providing tracking through online portals, while some other agencies explained that they regularly post updated request logs with status information on their websites.  In addition to providing online tracking, some agencies reported that they provide requesters estimated dates of completion through these services.  Of the agencies that do not currently provide online tracking, about half reported that they were taking steps to establish this capability.  For those agencies that do not plan to establish online tracking at this time, many reported that such services would not provide a substantial public benefit given the small number of requests they receive and their short processing times.

The use of technology to reduce the time and labor needed to process requests, such as technology that can sort and de-duplicate documents, provide shared platforms to facilitate consultations, or improve search capabilities, has great potential for improving agencies' FOIA administration.  For 2014, many agencies once again reported that they are taking steps to utilize more advanced technology to assist with the processing of requests.  For example:

  • The Privacy Office and fifteen of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) components deployed a new web-based tracking application that includes a number of features for the agency’s FOIA professionals including new search capabilities and the ability to share documents across offices for consultations and referrals.  Additionally, DHS added a new de-duplication capability that allows FOIA staff to upload e-mail correspondence files and de-duplicate the correspondence based on a comparison process performed by the application.
  • The Department of State is updating its records archive, the State Archiving System, with new tools to assist its FOIA staff in conducting searches in response to FOIA requests.  The agency plans further improvements to this custom-built system, including the ability to search across document formats, streamlining the process of identifying duplicate messages, and adding a 25-year review enhancement for classified material.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of implementing an advanced document review module which utilizes logarithmic record analysis capabilities to de-duplicate voluminous record sets, which will reduce the processing time for large volume requests. 

A number of agencies reported that they could benefit from the types of tools described above that provide shared platforms for consultations and that would assist with the search, de-duplication, and review of large volumes of records.  As agencies continue to acquire such tools for use in their FOIA operations, they can expect to see greater efficiencies in their overall FOIA administration.  As the Chief FOIA Officer Reports continue to illustrate, agencies are eager to use more advanced technology to streamline their FOIA administration. This is just a brief summary of agencies' use of technology in FOIA as reported in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for even more examples. 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).

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

OIP’s Requester Roundtable series picks up again this summer, once again providing an open forum for the FOIA requester community and agency personal to discuss various topics in FOIA administration.

Originally scheduled for January 22, 2014 (cancelled due to inclement weather), the June meeting will focus on how agencies provide estimated dates of completion to FOIA requesters.  Hosted in conjunction with the Office of Government Information Services, participants at this upcoming meeting will discuss agency implementation of this statutory requirement and will build off both agency best practices and OIP’s guidance regarding the importance of good communication with requesters.  Specifically, the meeting will highlight the various ways agencies provide estimated dates of completion to requesters and the experience of requesters in requesting and receiving such information from agencies. The details for this meeting are:

FOIA Requester Roundtable Meeting
Providing Estimated Dates of Completion
Department of Justice – Office of Information Policy
1425 New York Avenue, NW – Suite 11050
June 17, 2014, 10:00 – 11:00 am

This meeting, like all Requester Roundtable meetings, is open to the public as well as to all interested agency personnel.  We hope that you can join us for this discussion. 

If you are interested in attending, please e-mail your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “June Requester Roundtable.”  As space for this meeting is limited, registration is required to attend, and please remember 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
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Today OIP held the first of what will be an ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops designed to showcase successes achieved by agencies in FOIA administration.  OIP committed to conducting this workshop series as part of our efforts in fulfilling the Administration’s commitments to the Open Government Partnership, as detailed in the second National Action Plan.  The goal of the Best Practices Workshops is to improve FOIA processes across the government by sharing successful strategies and approaches to a wide range of FOIA issues.  The workshops provide a forum for agencies to learn from one another.   

The topic for the kickoff session was Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness.  As the Attorney General stated in his FOIA Guidelines:  “Timely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency.  Long delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand.”  Given the importance of this topic, which lies at the heart of any successful FOIA operation, it was chosen to be the topic for the inaugural session of this Best Practices Workshop series. 

Today’s panel featured five speakers, from agencies both large and small.  These speakers had all demonstrated notable success in improving timeliness and reducing backlogs at their respective offices.  The speakers were Michael Marquis, from HHS, Thomas Cioppa, from USCIS at DHS, Richard  Frank, from the Army Corps of Engineers, DOD, Lisa Babcock, from the SBA, and Cindy Cafaro, from the Department of the Interior.   During the session each speaker briefed the audience on the challenges they faced and described the many, varied approaches they had taken to achieve real success in reducing processing times, closing their ten oldest requests, and reducing backlogs.  During the session there was also an active exchange with the audience as questions were raised and comments were addressed. 

While the speakers had each devised their own individualized approaches to meeting the challenges of improving timeliness at their own offices, what was striking about listening to the panel was their extraordinarily high level of engagement on these issues.  One after another, each speaker detailed a series of actions they had taken, all designed to work in concert, to bring about reforms that would improve performance.  It was clear from listening to these speakers that they were very actively engaged in finding ways to help their offices improve timeliness and reduce backlogs. 

There were also common elements to the approaches taken at the five agencies.  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  

The speakers also stressed the benefits of using multi-track processing and explained how they had created new tracks and ensured that requests were properly assigned to the proper track so that simple requests did not get caught behind far more complicated ones. Several speakers mentioned that they used the first quarter of the fiscal year to focus on their ten oldest requests. The speakers highlighted the benefits and improvements that technology afforded and stressed how they were constantly looking for ways to use technology to simplify the process. 

At the conclusion of the panel many audience members conveyed that they had gotten a lot of good ideas that they would take back to their own agencies.  That is the goal of these workshops – to provide agency personnel with a forum to hear from others who have faced the same challenges and learn how they overcame those challenges to achieve success and see real improvement in their FOIA operations. 

Our next Best Practices Workshop will be held July 17, 2014, and will address the topic of Proactive Disclosures and Making Online Information More Useful.   Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information about these series of events.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Thursday, May 1, 2014

As part of the efforts described in the Second Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) to modernize FOIA, the Administration has committed to developing common FOIA regulations and practices for agencies.   OIP is pleased to announce that this month we will host the kickoff meeting for the interagency process of developing a common set of FOIA regulations.  

Agencies promulgate FOIA regulations to procedurally assist in the implementation of certain provisions of the law, such as where and how to make a request.  While currently these regulations can vary between the ninety-nine agencies subject to the FOIA, the NAP recognized that “[c]ertain steps in the FOIA process are generally shared across Federal agencies . . . [and that] [s]tandardizing these common aspects through a core FOIA regulation and common set of practices would make it easier for requesters to understand and navigate the FOIA process and easier for the Government to keep regulations up to date."

During this meeting, which is open to all agency FOIA personnel and interested agency regulatory specialists, we will begin discussing and collaborating on the content of potential common FOIA regulations and the next steps moving forward in this process.  As noted in the NAP, our goal for this initiative is to develop a common core FOIA regulation “that is both applicable to all agencies and retains flexibility for agency-specific requirements."  The details for the meeting are:

Common Core FOIA Regulations
Kickoff Meeting
Department of Justice – Office of Information Policy
1425 New York Avenue, NW – Suite 11050
May 29, 2014, 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm

Registration is required to attend this meeting and you will need a picture ID to enter the building.

Prior to this meeting, OIP will also meet with members of the FOIA requester community and civil society for initial input on the development of common FOIA regulations.  As we work on this important initiative, we look forward to regularly engaging all stakeholders throughout the process.

If you are interested in attending this kickoff meeting, 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 “Common FOIA Regulations Kickoff Meeting.”  If you have any questions regarding this meeting, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Last month, Director Melanie Ann Pustay traveled to Beijing to participate in a series of workshops focusing on China’s Regulations on Open Government Information (OGI Regulations) in a program co-sponsored by Yale Law School’s China Law Center and China University of Politics and Law’s Center on Government by Law.  During this series, Director Pustay provided insight to academic and government participants from across China on key principles for access to information laws and shared examples from the United States' own Freedom of Information Act.

Participants in Workshop Series Participants in Workshop Series

 

The first workshop of the program, Revising China’s Open Government Information Regulations and Drafting a Law of the People’s Republic of China on Open Government Information, focused on a number of issues that have arisen since China implemented the OGI Regulations on May 1, 2008.  Workshop participants discussed these issues in detail and how they might best be addressed in light of international experience and China's particular circumstances.  In addition to discussing the implementation of the FOIA in the United States, Director Pustay also shared her observations based on her previous work with China assisting them in the implementation of their OGI Regulations and her experiences in consulting with various foreign governments on the development or improvement of their information access laws.

During the second workshop, Director Pustay focused on the importance of government professionals receiving adequate training and guidance on the proper implementation of any OGI Regulation.  Director Pustay also emphasized the significance of good customer service and communication with requesters when implementing any access law.  As a part of her presentation, Director Pustay highlighted the key role in the United States of agency FOIA Public Liaisons and their statutory responsibility to assist requesters.

As with previous trips to other nations, Director Pustay’s trip stems from OIP’s core mission of encouraging federal agency compliance with the FOIA here in the United States.  OIP leadership and subject matter experts routinely meet with delegations from foreign governments and international organizations on the administration of the FOIA and the importance of information access laws.  A comprehensive listing of the events that OIP leadership and subject matter experts participate in throughout the year is available on the Key Dates page of our site.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Earlier this year, OIP announced the creation of a new series of agency Best Practices workshops as a part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan’s commitment to modernizing FOIA and improving the FOIA process at agencies.  Today, we are pleased to announce the first slate of topics and details for this new series of workshops.

Each of the scheduled workshops focuses on a specific topic and will include a panel of agency representatives who will share their success stories and strategies.  The series is an opportunity for FOIA professionals 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. 

Each workshop in the series is open to all agency FOIA professionals and interested agency personnel.  Representatives from civil society will be invited to participate in certain workshops as well.  The dates and topics for the first set of workshops are:

Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness
May 20, 2014, 10:00 am – 12 noon 

Proactive Disclosures & Making Online Information More Useful
July 17, 2014, 10:00 am – 12 noon

Best Practices from the Requester's Perspective
October 15, 2014, 10:00 am – 12 noon

Implementing Technology to Improve FOIA Processing
December 9, 2014, 10:00 am – 12 noon

Customer Service & Dispute Resolution
February 11 2015, 10:00 am – 12 noon

All meetings will be held in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice’s Robert F. Kennedy Building (10th and Constitution Ave., NW).  Registration is required to attend and you will need a picture ID to enter the building for any of these meetings.

The May, July, December, and February meetings will feature different panels of agency representatives highlighting successes and lessons on the specific topics.  The October meeting will feature a panel from the open government and requester community, highlighting some of the agency best practices they have experienced while working through the FOIA process with agencies.  As previously announced, tips and topics discussed during these workshops, as well as feedback from workshop participants, will be published on OIP's website after each meeting as a resource for all agencies.

If you are interested in attending any of these events, 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 “[Month] Best Practices Workshop.”  If you have any questions regarding the series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

As the Attorney General emphasized in his FOIA Guidelines, the “responsibility for effective FOIA administration belongs to all of us . . . [and] [w]e all must do our part to ensure open government.”  This new workshop series is designed to share lessons learned across agencies in an effort to improve the administration of the FOIA across the government.    

As we hold these meetings, 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 e-mail us at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “Best Practices Workshop Suggestion.”

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Wednesday, April 9, 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 a part of a series which started during Sunshine Week 2014, OIP continues to highlight in a series of posts some of the successes in these five key areas as reported by agencies in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.

Increasing Proactive Disclosures

Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the need for agencies to work proactively to post information online without waiting for individual requests to be received.  As a part of the guidelines for the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, OIP asked agencies to detail the steps “taken to both increase the amount of material that is available on [their] website[s]” as well as “the usability of such information.”  In their reports for this year, agencies provided numerous details on the systems they have in place for identifying records for proactive disclosures, how they are making posted material more useful to the public, and how they are notifying the public of newly posted material. 

In order to answer the Attorney General’s call for agencies to “readily and systematically post information online” it is important that each agency have a process in place to identify records for proactive disclosures.  Utilizing different strategies tailored to serve the community of individuals who most frequent their websites, many agencies described the distinct processes they have put in place to identify records of public interest for proactive disclosures.  For example, FOIA professionals at the General Services Administration use their networking system to work with key agency offices to anticipate records of public interest that could be proactively disclosed online.  In addition to systematically reviewing records requested under the FOIA for posting online, the Office of Personnel Management routinely sends notices to program offices reminding them of the need to proactively disclose data and records.  At the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services the FOIA Office works closely with program managers to identify and proactively post records for which there might be a high public interest. 

Using various methods to identify proactive disclosures, agencies also provided a wealth of examples of new or regularly updated information posted on their websites, including:

  • The Department of Homeland Security has proactively posted over 16,000 pages of records since March 2013, including daily schedules of senior leaders and procurement records.
  • With more frequency and in greater volume, components of the Department of Labor posted FOIA logs, annual reports, policy guidance, historical reports, mission reports, government purchase card holder lists, strategic plans, contracts information and listings, lists of accessioned documents, press releases, testimonies and speeches, workplace accident reports, investigations, audit reports, proposals and abstracts for grant applications, reports to Congress, Equal Employment Opportunity complaint data, veterans information and links on worker healthy living.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has continued to expand its Consumer Complaint Database, launched in June 2012 to include various types of complaints and data for over 176,000 complaints. 
  • The Department of Energy’s website for agency data provides a central location for information about data released by the agency, including an agency-wide data index that provides metadata and URLs to publicly available datasets.

In addition to identifying and posting new material, agencies also detailed how they are taking steps to make posted material more useful to the public.  For example:

  • The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management posted an interactive map displaying and describing its renewable energy-related activities in the United States. Similarly, Amtrak’s train locator map, an interactive tool created in partnership with Google, tracks any of the 300 daily trains operated by Amtrak and provides consumers with more accurate predicted arrival times.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development continues to make agency data available in standard, nonproprietary, and machine-readable formats, and solicits public feedback on the information that the agency makes available.  Users can interact with agency data, see how other members of the public are using the data, and leave questions or comments about the data for the agency to respond.
  • At the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Safety Inspection Service uses an interactive resource called “Ask Karen” to provide information to consumers about preventing foodborne illness, safe food handling and storage, and safe preparation of meat, poultry and egg products.

Finally, agencies described in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports steps they are taking to publicize or highlight important proactive disclosures in order to inform the public of their availability, including using social media.   Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr are just some of the social media outlets used by agencies over the past year to highlight new postings.  These are just a few of the examples of the successes achieved by agencies in the past year in ensuring that they have taken steps to increase proactive disclosures.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for even more examples.  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). 

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Friday, April 4, 2014

Over the last five years, agency Chief 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 a part of a 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.   

Ensuring Agencies Have Effective Systems for Responding To Requests

As a part of this year’s guidelines for agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies were asked to provide information on the steps “taken to ensure that [the] management of [the agency’s] FOIA program is effective and efficient.”  In their 2014 reports, agencies provided details on various efforts related to personnel, processing procedures and requester services.

A key component of an agency having an effective system for responding to requests is the quality of its FOIA professionals who are on the frontlines of processing the increasing numbers of requests that are received each year.  Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the importance of the work performed by agency FOIA professionals. In recognition of their important role, and in an effort to professionalize the government's FOIA and Privacy Act workforce, on March 9, 2012, the Office of Personnel Management announced the creation of a new job category specifically for FOIA and Privacy Act professionals called the Government Information Series.  In their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, many agencies reported that they had converted the majority, if not all, of their eligible FOIA staff to the new job series including the Departments of Justice, Labor, and Interior, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Agencies that had not yet converted all of their eligible FOIA personnel to the new job series provided plans in their report for doing so in the upcoming year. 

For the 2014 reports, agencies were also asked to report on if they were able to adjudicate requests for expedited processing in an average of ten calendar days or less during Fiscal Year 2013. In response, several agencies reported that they did not receive any requests for expedited processing, but of the agencies that did adjudicate such requests, fifty-one including thirteen of the fifteen cabinet departments reported that they were able to do so within an average of ten calendar days or less.  Notably, the three agencies that adjudicated the most requests for expedited processing during Fiscal Year 2013, the Departments of Homeland Security (1,480), Justice (1,017), and Defense (1,014), all reported an average of five days or less.  For those agencies that did not maintain an average of ten days or less, many outlined aggressive plans in their reports for improvement during Fiscal Year 2014.

In line with OIP’s previously released guidance on procedures for processing consultations and referrals, many agencies highlighted additional steps they have taken to make the handling of such items more efficient and effective.  A number of agencies reported taking affirmative steps to create efficiencies by entering into agreements with other agencies or agency components on how to process records that are a common source of consultations or referrals.  For example, at the Department of Justice, the Executive Office for Immigration Review continued to work under a longstanding agreement with the Department of Homeland Security on the processing of immigration records, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reached an agreement within the Intelligence Community on the processing of certain information.  Other agencies reported employing shared document environments to allow for more efficient means of collaborating on material that required consultation.  Notably, at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, ninety-one of the ninety-nine agencies subject to the FOIA reported having less than ten consultations pending at their agency, with seventy-four reporting that they had none pending.

This year’s reports also detailed over-arching steps agencies have undertaken to ensure that their FOIA systems operate efficiently and effectively, including:

  • The General Services Administration consolidating and centralizing its FOIA program during the reporting period, thereby creating a single point of intake for all agency FOIA requests.  As a result of this restructuring, the agnecy expects to have increased accountability and quality control in its administration of the FOIA, as well as improved communication with FOIA requesters.
  • The Department of the Treasury implemented the next phase of its goFOIA electronic system, which has improved its reporting abilities, allowing agency leadership to view more accurate and detailed weekly and monthly FOIA reports that they can now use to more accurately gauge FOIA performance throughout the year.
  • Like a number of other agencies, the FOIA office at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began conducting a case-by-case review of its FOIA administration to determine any trends contributing toward delays and to identify any areas where efficiencies could help the agency reduce its request backlog.

As a part of their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies also overwhelmingly noted that they communicate with requesters through electronic means whenever possible and that they are informing the public of the mediation services offered by the Office of Government Information Services in their administrative appeal responses. 

These are just some examples of the concrete steps agencies have taken to ensure that they have an effective and efficient system in place for responding to FOIA requests.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for even more examples. 

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 the previous post in this series on FOIA Post (Part I).

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Thursday, March 20, 2014

This year marks the fifth anniversary of Attorney General Holder’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Guidelines, which highlighted the importance of the FOIA as a reflection of “our nation’s fundamental commitment to open government.”  In his Guidelines, the Attorney General directed agency Chief FOIA Officers to annually 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.” 

Over the past five years, these Chief FOIA Officer Reports have illustrated agencies' efforts to improve FOIA administration in the five key areas addressed by the Attorney General's FOIA Guidelines:  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.  As we celebrate Sunshine Week 2014, OIP will be highlighting examples of successes from each of these five areas as reported in agencies' 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports

Applying the Presumption of Openness  

Agencies described a wide range of efforts in this year’s reports to ensure the proper application of the presumption of openness called for by the President and the Attorney General, including providing substantive FOIA training to agency FOIA professionals, engaging in outreach with the public, and making discretionary releases of information. 

A proper understanding of the FOIA and the Attorney General's FOIA Guidelines is the first step towards applying the presumption of openness and a number of agencies made significant efforts this past year to provide substantive FOIA training to agency personnel.  For example:

  • At the Department of Justice, OIP continued to expand on its robust training program in an effort to provide quality FOIA training to FOIA professionals both within the Department and across all agencies.  During this past year, OIP trained thousands of FOIA professionals on a wide range of issues.   In an effort to provide important FOIA training to all federal employees, this Summer OIP will be releasing a suite of e-Learning training modules designed for every level of agency employee.
     
  • The Office of Information Services at the Department of Labor hosted the agency’s Fifth Annual FOIA Training Conference.  The three and a half day event was provided via webcast and made available to 400 agency staff members nationwide.  Materials from the training session and videos of each presentation were also made available to agency personnel for future use and self-paced learning opportunities.
     
  • The Department of Defense increased the use of the interactive virtual environment Defense Connect Online to provide FOIA training to agency professionals worldwide.  Four training sessions were conducted for agency FOIA professionals, with each session recorded and made available on-demand for any member of the agency’s FOIA community.  Additionally agency FOIA leadership held numerous FOIA chats using the virtual tool, allowing for the quick dissemination of information regarding current events as well as offering agency professionals the ability ask and have questions answered by their leadership.

Agencies also described in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports the different ways they are engaging with civil society and the requester community to improve the customer experience and facilitate greater access to records.  For example:

  • The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service at the Department of Homeland Security hosted more than 30 members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association for a tour of the agency’s National Records Center.  The agency also provided the attendees with a briefing regarding records operations within the agency and other Department of Homeland Security Offices, and an overview of the agency’s FOIA program.
     
  • The Archivist of the United States and the General Counsel of the National Archives and Records Administration, who also serves as the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer, reported having regular meetings with the agency’s requester community to discuss issues related to records access, including access through the FOIA.

This year’s Chief FOIA Officer Reports once again detailed agency efforts to make discretionary releases of information whenever possible.  In 2010, OIP identified a correlation between agencies that have a process or system in place to review materials for discretionary release and the ability of agencies to make such releases.  In this year’s reports the majority of agencies reported having such a system or process in place, with over half of agencies reporting making such a release during the reporting period.  These agencies found opportunities to make discretionary releases of information that otherwise would have been exempt under Exemptions 2, 5, 7D, 7E, and 8. 

These are just a few of the examples of the many successes agencies reported in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to apply the presumption of openness.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for even more examples. 

Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information on the Department’s continued efforts to improve both transparency and understanding of the FOIA.

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Federal agencies continue to explore different opportunities for leveraging technological tools in their administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to create more effective systems for responding to requests.  During Sunshine Week 2014, OIP will host a meeting of the FOIA IT Working Group to continue discussions on how the application of digital tools can help agencies achieve efficiencies in their administration of the FOIA.

The FOIA IT Working Group acts as a forum for agency FOIA and technology professionals to discuss areas that could benefit from the application of digital tools or to highlight best practices in the use of technology.  As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the issuance of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, this Sunshine Week meeting will examine the various successes and benefits that agencies have been able to achieve in their FOIA programs over the last five years through the use of technology.  Additionally, during the meeting we will discuss areas of FOIA administration not yet addressed by the Working Group that could benefit from the application of advanced technological tools.

The details for the meeting, which is open all agency FOIA professionals, interested agency technology specialists, and members of the public are:

FOIA IT Working Group Meeting
Examining the Road Forward after Five Years of Work
Department of Justice – Office of Information Policy
1425 New York Ave. NW – Suite 11050
March 20, 2014, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

Registration is required to attend and you will need a picture ID to enter the building for this meeting.

Over the last five years, agencies have improved proactive disclosures, designed new interactive FOIA websites, and identified the benefits of employing advanced digital tools to search and process records.  These strides in using technology to improve some of the key areas of FOIA administration have laid the foundation for future efforts in employing such tools to create further efficiencies.   Through the use of technology, agencies continue to affirm their commitment to creating and sustaining effective FOIA operations.

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 “FOIA IT Working Group Sunshine Week Meeting.”  If you have any questions regarding this meeting, please contact OIP at (202) 514-FOIA (3642).

As Sunshine Week 2014 approaches, be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for announcements and information about all of OIP’s planned activities for the week.  Don’t forget to join us for the Justice Department’s Sunshine Week kickoff celebration as well on Monday, March 17th.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post, Open Government
Thursday, February 27, 2014

Update: Due to government office closures in the D.C. area as a result of inclement weather we are not able to hold our Sunshine Week event today. Please stay tuned to FOIA Post for additional announcements and information for Sunshine Week 2014.

The Department of Justice is pleased to invite both agency personnel and members of the public to celebrate with us as we kickoff Sunshine Week 2014.  This year also marks the fifth anniversary of Attorney General Holder’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Guidelines, which highlighted the importance of the FOIA as a reflection of “our nation’s fundamental commitment to open government.”  Through his Guidelines, which were issued during Sunshine Week 2009, the Attorney General called on all government personnel to understand that the responsibility of an effective FOIA administration "belongs to all of us."  The Attorney General directed agencies to administer the FOIA with a presumption of openness, to ensure that they have effective systems in place to respond to requests, to work promptly and proactively to provide information to the public and to utilize technology to make information known to the public.

Associate Attorney General Tony West will lead our celebration this year and provide the keynote address commemorating the fifth anniversary of the FOIA Guidelines.  The event will highlight the many significant improvements agencies have made in their FOIA administration over the past five years. Representatives from a cross-section of federal agencies will also share their particular experiences and accomplishments over the years in improving their administration of the FOIA through the implementation of the Attorney General's FOIA Guidelines.   The details for the event, which is open to all agency personnel and members of the public, are:

Department of Justice Sunshine Week 2014 Celebration
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution Ave., NW – Great Hall
March 17, 2014, 10:00am – 12 noon 

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

We hope that you can join us for this year’s celebration.  If you are interested in attending this event, please register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov, with the subject line “Sunshine Week 2014 Celebration.”  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact our office at (202) 514-FOIA (3642).  

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Friday, January 24, 2014

As part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan's commitment to modernizing FOIA and improving internal agency FOIA processes, we will be holding a series of agency Best Practices workshops beginning this Spring.  Each workshop will focus on a specific topic and will include a panel of agency representatives sharing their success stories and strategies.  Through these workshops agencies can learn from one another and leverage the successes of other agencies in their own organization for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government. 

As the Attorney General emphasized in his FOIA Guidelines, the "responsibility for effective FOIA administration belongs to all of us . . . [and] [w]e all must do our part to ensure open government."  Embracing the Attorney General's FOIA Guidelines, over the past few years many agencies have analyzed their existing FOIA practices and found ways to improve different areas of their FOIA administration such as reducing backlogs, improving processing times, increasing proactive disclosures, using technology, and improving customer service. 

This new Best Practices Workshop series is designed to share the lessons learned across agencies in improving their FOIA administration, many of which are described each year in agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  Each workshop will focus on a specific FOIA topic, such as reducing backlogs, and will highlight a panel of agencies that have had success in that area.  Tips and best practices discussed during these workshops, as well as feedback from workshop participants will then be published online so that all agencies can use them as a resource for improvement.

Specific details regarding these workshops, including time, location and topic will be announced prior to each session here on FOIA Post and through OIP's Twitter account, @FOIAPost.  As we work to establish this new series of workshops, we invite you to suggest discussion topics.  Also please let us know if you would like to participate as an agency representative on a panel or would like to identify any other agencies that have had successes in any area of FOIA administration that should be included on a panel.  Please e-mail your suggestions to us at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov using the subject line "Agency Best Practices Workshop Suggestion."  

Topic(s):
Open Government, FOIA Post
Thursday, January 16, 2014

Update: Due to the delayed opening of federal agencies on January 22nd, this FOIA Requester Roundtable meeting has been cancelled and will be rescheduled for a future date.  The updated details for this meeting will appear below once they are finalized.  We apologize for the inconvenience.

OIP’s FOIA Requester Roundtable series continues this month with the first meeting of 2014.  The quarterly series continues to provide an opportunity for the FOIA requester community and agency personnel to come together in an open forum to discuss various topics in FOIA administration.

This month’s meeting, hosted in conjunction with the Office of Government Information Services, will focus on how agencies provide estimated dates of completion to FOIA requesters.  Focusing on the implementation of this statutory requirement, the meeting will build off of agency best practices and OIP’s guidance regarding the importance of good communication.  Specifically, the meeting will highlight the various ways agencies provide estimated dates of completion to requesters and the experience of requesters in receiving and requesting such information from agencies.   

The details for this meeting are:

FOIA Requester Roundtable Meeting
Providing Estimated Dates of Completion
Department of Justice – Office of Information Policy
1425 New York Avenue, NW – Suite 11050
January 22, 2014, 10:00 am – noon

This and all Requester Roundtable meetings are open to the public as well as all interested agency personnel, and we hope that you can join us for this discussion. 

If you are interested in attending, please e-mail your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “January Requester Roundtable.”  As space for this meeting is limited, registration is required to attend, and please remember 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
Friday, November 22, 2013

A key element of answering President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s call for agencies to work with FOIA requesters “in a spirit of cooperation” is the use of good communication practices.  As a result, in 2010 OIP released guidance which addressed a number of areas where better communication with requesters could improve overall FOIA administration across the government.  Today, after continued engagement with both agencies and the requester community, we have released our second installment of guidance on this topic.

Building off the 2010 guidance, our new guidance “encourages greater use of email or other technology as the means by which agencies communicate with requesters.”  The guidance also focuses on improving the content of agency communications to provide requesters with a greater understanding of how their requests are being handled.

The specific topics addressed by this new guidance are:

  • Using Technology to Further Improve Communications with Requesters,
  • Communicating Electronically with Requesters as the Default,
  • Alerting the Public to any Limitations on the Use of Electronic Communications,
  • Providing Links to Information Already Available Online,
  • Communicating in a “Spirit of Cooperation,”
  • Providing Requesters With a Breakdown of Fees and an Explanation When Fees Might be Higher than Expected,
  • Making it Easy to Narrow Requests

By improving the means by which agencies communicate with FOIA requesters as well as the content of those communications, agencies will help promote greater understanding of the FOIA process and facilitate timely access to information.   Through continued improvements in this area, agencies will be able to make concrete steps towards affirming their commitment to President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s vision of working with requesters in a “spirit of cooperation.”

 You can read the full guidance article here and on OIP’s Guidance page.

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Thursday, November 7, 2013

As the federal government’s lead office for encouraging agency compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), each year OIP offers 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 2014, the dates and topics for these training sessions are:

FOIA for Attorneys and Access Professionals 
November 19-20, 2013
February 25-26, 2014
May 13-14, 2014
July 15-16, 2014

 Advanced FOIA Seminar
March 26, 2014

Introduction to the FOIA
April 16, 2014

FOIA Administrative Forum
June 11, 2014

All seminars will be held in Washington, DC, and are open to all federal government employees.  Descriptions of these seminars are available on our Training page.  OIP also offers various other training opportunities throughout the year such as the Director’s Lecture Series, refresher training on agency Annual FOIA Reports and Chief FOIA Officer Reports, and training that is available through video conferencing.  Details on all of the training offered by OIP will continue to be announced here on FOIA Post, as well as 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 29, 2013

As federal employees returned to work after the recent government shutdown, OIP has been asked by many FOIA professionals how these recent events will impact their agency’s FOIA reporting.  Specifically, agencies have asked whether the recent government shutdown affected how agencies should count the number of days used to respond to FOIA requests and administrative appeals. When considering how to calculate the number of days used to respond to FOIA requests and administrative appeals for agency Annual FOIA Reports, the following guidance should apply:

Agencies and requesters alike generally refer to the FOIA’s time limits as “working days.”  Logically, then, they could easily conclude that during a time when FOIA Offices had no choice but to be closed because of the lapse in funding, those days when employees were furloughed were not “working” days and so should not be counted as part of the FOIA’s response times.  As a matter of policy, however, and consistent with the spirit of openness in administering the FOIA, agencies should count as part of their response times for FOIA requests and appeals the eleven days when the government was closed, which excludes the Saturdays, Sundays, and the one legal public holiday that occurred during the shutdown.

Our hope and expectation is that requesters will fully understand that even though agencies will be including these shutdown days in their calculations of response times, that because FOIA personnel were not able to work during that period, there will necessarily be an impact on processing times. OIP’s FOIA Counselor Service and Annual FOIA Report Team are available to answer any questions on this guidance or any other topic regarding FOIA administration, and can be reached at (202) 514-FOIA (3642).

Topic(s):
FOIA Post
Monday, September 30, 2013

Update: Due to the government shutdown, the October 17th FOIA Requester Roundtable Meeting has been rescheduled for Thursday, November 7th.  The updated details for this meeting are located below.  We apologize for the inconvenience.

Over the last several years OIP has sponsored a series of quarterly FOIA Requester Roundtable meetings, which provide an opportunity for the FOIA requester community and agency personnel to come together to discuss various topics in FOIA administration.  These meetings, hosted in conjunction with the Office of Government Information Services, will continue in Fiscal Year 2014 with the ongoing goal of facilitating a forum for exchanging ideas on how to improve the FOIA process

The first Requester Roundtable meeting of Fiscal Year 2014 will take place on October 17, and will focus on the topic of maximizing agencies’ administrative appeal process.  Across the government, the administrative appeal process allows requesters an opportunity to raise any issues with the initial handling of their FOIA request directly to agencies, while also providing agencies with the ability to take a fresh look at the responses provided to requesters.  Our discussion will focus on the importance of this process to both requesters and agencies in order to improve overall administration of the FOIA.

The details for this meeting are:

FOIA Requester Roundtable Meeting
Maximizing the Administrative Appeal Process
Department of Justice – Office of Information Policy
1425 New York Avenue, NW – Suite 11050
November 7, 2013; 12:30 – 1:30pm

This and all Requester Roundtable meetings are open to members of the public as well as interested agency personnel, and we hope that you can join us for our discussion.  As Fiscal Year 2014 continues, additional meetings in this series will be held on January 22, April 24, and July 24.  Details regarding these meetings, including time, location, and topic, will be announced here on FOIA Post and through OIP’s Twitter account, @FOIAPost, prior to each meeting.

If you are interested in attending the upcoming October Requester Roundtable, please email your name and phone number to OIP’s Training officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “October Requester Roundtable.”  As space for these meetings is limited, registration is required to attend, and please remember 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

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