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.” Attorney General Eric Holder, in his FOIA Guidelines issued in March 2009, built on these directives, instructing agencies on how to apply the presumption of openness called for by the President and emphasizing the need for agencies to release records proactively and promptly and to utilize technology in FOIA administration.
Seeking to do still more, in September 201o, at a speech to the United Nations, the President challenged countries around the world to join the United States in adopting “specific commitments to strengthen the foundations of freedom.” A year later, the President joined seven global leaders, as well as a group of international civil society organizations, to launch the Open Government Partnership. This was followed by release of the U.S. National Action Plan (PDF), which highlighted “a set of twenty-six concrete commitments that help increase public integrity, promote public participation, manage public resources more effectively, and improve public services.”
Two of the commitments in the National Action Plan focused on continued improvements in the administration of the FOIA by:
- Professionalizing FOIA administration through creation of a new civil service personnel category for officials who specialize in FOIA and other government information programs, and
- Expanding use of technology to achieve greater efficiencies in FOIA administration, including utilization of technology to assist in searching for and processing records, as well as to ensure that information posted by agencies online is searchable and readily usable by the public.
Last week, the White House released an assessment on the implementation of this National Action Plan (PDF). Included within the assessment was a discussion of the work done to fulfill the two commitments related to FOIA administration. The assessment highlights that agencies have made improvements to FOIA administration, by, among other things, “significantly improve[ing] the average processing times for requests” and reducing the backlog of pending requests by 46% since 2008. The assessment also evaluates the two key FOIA initiatives that were part of the National Action Plan.
As to creation of a distinct job series for FOIA professionals, as previously described by the Office of Information Policy (OIP), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced the creation of the Government Information Series during Sunshine Week 2012. The new job series recognizes the professional nature of the work of FOIA and Privacy Act professionals who are “responsible for promoting accountability and transparency while safeguarding certain types of vital government information.” The assessment notes that:
“[t]he Administration is proud that this commitment has been met, but also recognizes that the task of professionalizing FOIA is not over. The U.S. Government will continue to work to ensure that human resources professionals across the government understand this new job series and give this job series the proper elevation that it deserves.”
As to expanded use of technology, the assessment declares that “[t]echnology has the potential to transform FOIA administration,” and describes the “significant steps” taken by agencies to increase their use of technology in the administration of FOIA. The assessment notes that over “one hundred offices across the U.S. Government are now employing web portals that allow the public to electronically submit a FOIA request.” The assessment recognizes that “[o]ne of the most common difficulties in processing FOIA requests is the large amount of time spent by FOIA personnel searching for, de-duplicating, and conducting initial responsiveness reviews on records.” To meet that challenge the assessment describes that several agencies “have replaced time-intensive manual processes with software applications that automatically” do many of these tasks. The assessment also highlights OIP’s recently completed pilot program on leveraging digital tools in the processing of FOIA requests, as well as OIP’s FOIA Technology Working Group, which serves as a forum for agencies to exchange ideas on uses of technology, a forum that is particularly important given that, as the assessment recognizes, “FOIA tools are not one-size-fits-all.”
The Justice Department’s government-wide FOIA resource, FOIA.gov, had a number of enhancements incorporated into the site since its launch during Sunshine Week 2011, which were noted in the assessment. The addition of quarterly FOIA metrics (as well as the web based tool used to collect these statistics) and the site’s “Find” feature are just two of the enhancements made to the flagship initiative of the Justice Department’s Open Government Plan (version 1.0) (PDF).
Noting that progress continues to be made in the use of technology both to improve FOIA administration and to enhance the availability of government information online, the assessment describes some of the upcoming efforts by OIP in this area. For example, the assessment highlights OIP’s issuance of further guidance on the use of metadata when posting records to “allow for the creation of a virtual government-wide FOIA Library” and OIP’s development of “an online training course about the FOIA to be available to all federal employees in keeping with the Attorney General’s mandate that FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.”
The assessment acknowledges that the processing of FOIA requests is a “fundamentally labor intensive task, and working to improve timeliness is especially difficult at a time when initial requests have been steadily increasing and budgets have been decreasing.” By focusing on technology and “providing agencies and FOIA professionals with new tools and expanding access to training online,” the assessment concludes that “the Administration is working hard to fulfill its commitment to improve transparency through further use of technology.”
These are just a few of the important initiatives contained within the assessment and the National Action Plan itself. As noted by the Justice Department after the United States entry into the Open Government Partnership:
“An open and good government is much more than releasing information. It is about harnessing the skill and talents of the American people, establishing greater collaboration among Federal agencies, and ensuring that the taxpayer’s money is wisely spent.”
The Department is fully committed to the principles that the President announced on his first day in office. Today and in the days ahead, both OIP and the Justice Department will continue their efforts to improve the administration of the FOIA across the government. While there is still work to be done, the Department and the Administration remain “committed to continuing this work.”
For more information on the Department’s Open Government efforts, please visit the Open Government Page. For the latest developments in FOIA, continue to follow FOIA Post, and for the latest news from the Justice Department, please visit The Justice Blog.