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Successes in FOIA Administration: Part I – Applying the Presumption of Openness

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.

Updated August 15, 2014