Justice News

Office of Information Policy Director Melanie Ann Pustay Speaks at the U.S. Department of Justice Sunshine Week Celebration
Washington, DC
United States
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Monday, March 11, 2013

I would like to welcome everyone to the Department of Justice’s celebration of Sunshine Week. This week we celebrate the fourth anniversary of Attorney General Eric Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, which call on agencies to administer the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with a presumption of openness, to achieve greater efficiencies in responding to requests, and to make more information available to the public promptly and proactively. The Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines implement President Obama’s historic focus on improving government transparency.

It has been four years since these ideals were championed and today, the first day of Sunshine Week, we celebrate the many accomplishments we have achieved thus far.

This past year agencies have once again received more requests than in previous years, yet they rose to the challenge and also processed more requests than ever before. The government as a whole processed over 665,000 requests in Fiscal Year 2012, which is over 34,000 more than were processed last fiscal Year and 65,000 more than were process two fiscal years ago. Agencies have also improved response times, getting information to requesters more quickly.

As a result of these efforts, the government was able to reduce its backlog of pending requests by 14 percent this past fiscal year. This marks a nearly 45 percent reduction in the number of backlogged requests that existed four years ago, and illustrates the progress we have made under the President’s and Attorney General’s leadership.

In addition to responding to more requests, more quickly, agencies also continued to release more, providing records in full or in part in response to over 93 percent of requests where records were processed for disclosure, marking the fourth straight year that the government has achieved a release rate of over 92 percent.

These numbers are more than just improved statistics. They represent hundreds of thousands of individuals, organizations, students, reporters and public interest groups, all of whom have received more information, more quickly to help them in their research, or their work, or simply to increase their understanding of the workings of our government. This is exactly what the Freedom of Information Act is designed to do and agencies are making concrete improvements in administering this important law.

Here at the Department of Justice, as the lead agency on FOIA compliance, we continue to spearhead a number of efforts to improve FOIA administration across the government. I would like to highlight four of these efforts.

First, as part of our work in educating FOIA professionals, as well as the public, on the legal and policy requirements of the FOIA, today, my office, the Office of Information Policy (OIP) will post the first chapter of the 2013 edition of the Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act. Embracing the Attorney General’s emphasis on greater use of technology, OIP is transitioning the Guide to being a fully searchable, online resource. This new “living document” will allow us to update the guide with new developments in the law as they occur, further enhancing this valuable resource.

Second , as part of our work in fostering greater accountability in FOIA administration, OIP instituted a new quarterly reporting requirement that will provide both agencies and the public a more real-time assessment of the flow of FOIA requests handled by the government. Starting with this current fiscal year, agencies must report on four key FOIA statistics each quarter : the numbers of requests received; processed; and in an agency’s backlog for that quarter. We also collect statistics on the status of the agency’s 10 oldest pending requests. To assist agencies with this requirement, we created an easy to use web-based tool and are using API technology to collect the data for display on FOIA.gov. The data for Quarter 1 of FY 2013 is already on FOIA.gov.

Third, as part of the many initiatives announced by the Department’s Open Government Plan, this week OIP will also post initial guidance on the implementation of uniform metadata standards for FOIA. As the volume of material posted to agency websites continues to increase, it is essential that the public can quickly retrieve records of interest that are posted across government websites. Our new guidance lays the groundwork for creating a new, virtual, government-wide FOIA Library where all the records posted by agencies in FOIA Libraries across the government can be easily accessed in one place.

And finally, both the President and the Attorney General called on agencies to respond to FOIA requests promptly and to utilize advanced technologies for processing requests. As we all know, delays in FOIA processing are most often caused by the time needed for FOIA professionals to collect, search and de-duplicate records. To tackle this problem, OIP partnered with the department’s Civil Division on a pilot program to assess the impact, and make the business case for, the use of existing document management tools that can automate tasks that traditionally have been done manually. The results of this study, recently discussed in full at OIP’s Digital Tools seminar, are very encouraging and we will continue our work in this area for the benefit of all agencies and their administration of the FOIA.

In addition to these government-wide efforts, I would like to take a moment to highlight some of the successes we have achieved here at DOJ. This past year the department processed historically high numbers of requests, sustained a high release rate of 94.3 percent, and averaged less than nineteen days to process “simple track” requests. We also increased the amount of material made available proactively.

In particular, I want to highlight today the work of the FBI in making more information available to the public proactively. The FBI launched what it calls The Vault, two years ago and it continues to make improvements to it. The Vault is an online library that now includes records on nearly 500 subjects and is a treasure trove of information regarding the FBI’s work over the years. The Vault has been recognized as one of the outstanding free reference websites and receives over one hundred thousand views each week by members of the public interested in reviewing the work of the FBI. This is only one example of the wide-range of material DOJ has proactively posted online this past year.

In yet another milestone in FOIA administration, working with DOJ’s human capital managers, we undertook one of the first comprehensive reviews of the department’s position descriptions for OIP’s FOIA professionals and have re-designated them under OPM’s new Government Information job series. Having this distinct job series for FOIA and Privacy Act professionals recognizes the importance of their job and we are proud to be part of this effort to professionalize the work that is done in administering the FOIA.

We have achieved much success under the leadership and active involvement of our Chief FOIA Officer, Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West. Just this past year, the Acting Associate established the department’s first FOIA Council to serve as a high-level, department-wide forum for discussing FOIA issues. The FOIA Council will serve as an important vehicle for addressing issues that cut across components and for improving overall awareness of the department’s FOIA administration. Our Chief FOIA Officer also continues to regularly engage with the department’s FOIA professionals, demonstrating his support for their work and the department’s commitment to the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines.

Attorney General Holder’s sustained commitment in achieving the President’s vision of a more open government has been instrumental in the milestones we celebrate today. We all can take great pride in knowing that the work we do in administering the FOIA is of the highest importance to the Attorney General.

While there is more work to be done and further improvements to be made, Sunshine Week is an opportunity to reflect upon our accomplishments thus far and to share the lessons we have learned as we continue to focus on our shared mission of strengthening FOIA administration across the government.

We have tremendous leadership from the President and the Attorney General. We also have the dedication of thousands of agency FOIA professionals who work every day to bring improvements to the FOIA process.

I want to thank all of you for attending our celebration today and I encourage you to continue to strive for excellence in the administration of the FOIA, a cornerstone of our democracy.