Guidance for Further Improvement Based on 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Report Review and Assessment
As is evident by OIP's 2014 Assessment of Agency Progress in Implementing the President's and Attorneys General FOIA Memoranda, agencies have continued to improve their administration of the FOIA through various initiatives connected to the five key areas of the Attorney General's FOIA Guidelines. Agencies continue to build off the successes of prior years to improve the way they apply the presumption of openness, make more proactive disclosures, utilize technology for the benefit of FOIA, improve timeliness, and reduce backlogs. At the same time, during this past reporting period there is no doubt that many agencies faced some very tough challenges. While significant improvements can clearly be seen for the government overall, the successes achieved by individual agencies can vary. As in prior years, OIP's Assessment serves as a visual snapshot of where each agency should focus its efforts in the upcoming year to achieve even greater success in implementing the President's Memorandum on the FOIA and the Attorney General's FOIA Guidelines. To assist agencies, OIP offers the following guidance based on our 2014 Assessment.
Continue to Focus on Substantive FOIA Training
The first step towards any successful FOIA operation is a proper understanding of how to apply the FOIA's statutory requirements and the President's and Attorney General's FOIA Memoranda. Last year, OIP issued guidance advising agencies to make FOIA training available to all of their FOIA professionals at least once each year. OIP also emphasized that "it is essential that FOIA training programs cover core, substantive aspects of FOIA administration."
Given the importance of training for the success of an agency's FOIA administration, OIP expanded this section of the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to not only capture whether an agency held training events during the year or if an agency's FOIA professionals attended training, but to also include an estimate of the percentage of the FOIA professionals at each agency who attended substantive FOIA training. Additionally, OIP's 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Report Guidelines required agencies to provide a plan for ensuring that substantive FOIA training will be offered to all of their FOIA professionals by March 2015. Agencies were advised that they would be asked to report on whether all of their FOIA professionals attended substantive FOIA training in their 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.
During this upcoming year agencies should implement the training plans reported in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Agencies should also take steps to ensure that all of their FOIA professionals attend substantive FOIA training at least once throughout the year. The level of training needed by agency FOIA professionals will necessarily vary based on the numbers and complexity of the requests the agency receives. Nevertheless, it is important that all professionals that handle FOIA requests at an agency, whether small or large, participate in necessary FOIA training throughout the year so that they can be current with the state of the law.
Agencies that are in need of training are encouraged to take advantage of the many training opportunities available around the government or to plan a comprehensive FOIA conference tailored to the needs of their own agency. OIP regularly conducts a number of government-wide training sessions that cover all aspects of the FOIA. OIP's subject matter experts are also available to provide specialized training for agencies on any FOIA topic. Additionally, OIP will soon be providing an e-Leaning FOIA course for FOIA professionals that will be available for all agencies. For more information about OIP's upcoming training events and how to attend please visit the Training page of our website. Agencies can also contact OIP's Training Officer to arrange for assistance in holding an in-house training program.
Converting FOIA Professionals to the Government Information Specialist Job Series
Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the importance of the work performed by agency FOIA and Privacy Act professionals and the vital role they play in maintaining a transparent and accountable government. 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. All agencies were required to convert their FOIA and Privacy Act professionals to this new job series by March 2013. While many agencies met the 2013 deadline, there are a number of agencies that are still working towards converting their FOIA professionals to the new job series. All agencies that have yet to convert their eligible FOIA and Privacy Act professionals to the new job series should do so in this upcoming year.
Adding Distinct Steps to Identify Discretionary Releases and Taking an Active Role in Making Proactive Disclosures
The Attorney General's FOIA Guidelines encourage agencies to make discretionary releases whenever possible and to increase proactive disclosures. Every year since the issuance of the Guidelines agencies have reported in their Chief Officer Reports on both the types of information they have released as a matter of discretion and the types of records they have proactively disclosed online. After our first review of agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports, OIP found a strong correlation between those agencies that took the time to review their records with the presumption of openness in mind and those that were able to find additional information that could be released. Accordingly, OIP issued guidance advising agencies that they "should institute a system, or add a step in their processing procedures, to affirmatively consider whether more information can be released as a matter of discretion."
Similarly, agencies that have a distinct step in their FOIA process for identifying proactive disclosures are in a better position to identify more information that can be proactively posted online through their FOIA offices. While program offices across each agency are all responsible for proactively disclosing information, FOIA offices should take an active role in identifying records for proactive disclosure. FOIA offices are uniquely situated within each agency to have a sense of the types of material the public is seeking. To the extent that knowledge is used to identify proactive disclosures, the agency will be more fully implementing the Attorney General's FOIA Guidelines.