Proactive Disclosures – Timing and Format of Disclosures
Proactive disclosure of information is, as the Attorney General’s new FOIA Guidelines stress, “fundamental to the faithful application of FOIA.” The Department has long emphasized the importance of proactive disclosures, and OIP’s proactive disclosure guidance and implementation checklist identify key elements for agencies to consider when making disclosures. In their 2022 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies provided many examples of proactive disclosures made during the reporting period that include and go beyond the FOIA’s requirements.
Although the FOIA itself does not mandate timeframes for posting records proactively, the FOIA Guidelines directs agencies to “post records online as soon as feasible” and to “continue to maximize their efforts to post . . . quickly and systematically in advance of any public request.” Accordingly, agencies should post those records that fall within FOIA’s proactive disclosure provisions as soon as feasible and without delay. As agencies balance the demands of responding to individual FOIA requests with the FOIA’s proactive disclosure requirements, they should consider ways to systematically disclose information in a manner that best serves the public with their available resources. For example, some agencies incorporate into their request processing workflow a step to consider whether requested information should be proactively disclosed. Additionally, many agencies have forged relationships with their IT and website staff to facilitate efficient posting. Agencies may also consider establishing regular schedules for posting information to the extent that doing so is more efficient than posting on an ad hoc basis.
In addition to posting records quickly and systematically, the FOIA Guidelines explain that “records should be presented in the most useful, searchable, and open formats possible.” Many agencies reported how they are making information most useful to the public, for example, by making records available in searchable databases, posting data in open formats, and optimizing their websites to improve the user experience in locating relevant information. FOIA professionals should consult with their data, IT, and program office colleagues to ensure that disclosures are made in line with relevant open data and digital services policies and best practices, and so the agency’s community of users is best served.
Alternative Means of Access for Commonly Requested Records
The Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines also focus on removing barriers to access in part by “encourage[ing] all agencies to examine whether they have records that they could make more readily accessible without requiring individuals to file FOIA requests.” This is particularly relevant to agencies that handle many similar requests from requesters seeking information about themselves. Agencies may consider providing access to such records through online databases or other processes outside of FOIA. While multiple agencies reported providing alternative access to certain types of records, agencies should continue to review whether establishing alternative means of access would provide individuals faster access to information about themselves and allow the agency’s FOIA staff to process other types of FOIA requests more efficiently.
Quarterly Report Reminders
Agencies are also reminded of the requirement to complete Quarterly FOIA Reports covering key statistics throughout the fiscal year. In 2021, OIP issued Updated Guidance for Quarterly FOIA Reporting that changed how agencies provide their quarterly data. As of Quarter 4 of Fiscal Year 2021, agencies must enter their quarterly data directly into FOIA.gov. The content and timing of the reports remain the same. In addition to providing public insight to agencies’ FOIA administration, agencies themselves are encouraged to use their quarterly data to gauge their progress throughout the year. Historical quarterly data will be available on FOIA.gov moving forward, which can further facilitate agencies’ self-assessment and planning.