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Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer Delivers Remarks at 14th Annual Sunshine Week Event


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Bobby. And thank you for your expert leadership of the Office of Information Policy (OIP). During my time at the Department, I’ve been able to witness firsthand how you lead your office with integrity, with a commitment to the principles of openness embodied in the Freedom of Information Act, and with an infectious smile. But it was at my prior job where I truly learned to appreciate how critical your work is not just for our Department, but for agencies across the federal government.

I started my service in this Administration as the General Counsel of the Office of Personnel Management, where my responsibilities included adjudicating FOIA appeals. On more than one occasion, I turned to OIP when I needed help solving a particularly knotty FOIA issue. And every time, you provided wise counsel that ensured my agency was carrying out the statute properly. On behalf of the leadership of the Justice Department, as well as your partners across the federal government, I want to thank you — and the entire team at OIP — for everything you do to make our government transparent and accountable.

Welcome to the Justice Department’s 14th Annual Sunshine Week event. I am so pleased to kick off this important week for those of us who believe that our democracy functions best when the public knows what its government is doing. Sunshine Week is an opportunity to honor the public servants — like so many of you here — who work tirelessly to administer FOIA. But it is also an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the broader principles of openness, transparency, and accountability that FOIA serves.

For more than 50 years, FOIA has been a vital tool for advancing these core democratic principles. Two years ago, the Attorney General reaffirmed the government’s commitment to those principles by issuing comprehensive new FOIA guidelines. The 2022 guidelines direct the heads of all executive branch departments and agencies to apply a presumption of openness in administering FOIA: “In case of doubt,” the guidelines instruct, “openness should prevail.” The guidelines make clear that the Justice Department will not defend nondisclosure decisions that fail to apply such a presumption. And, finally, the guidelines emphasize the importance of making proactive disclosures, removing barriers to accessing government information, and reducing FOIA processing backlogs.

Since the guidelines were issued, FOIA professionals across our government have worked diligently to fulfill the commitments in the Attorney General’s guidelines. Over the past two years, they have processed over 1.8 million requests made by news media outlets, advocacy organizations, scholars, and ordinary citizens interested in knowing more about how the government operates. This year, the government set a new record in FOIA administration — for the first time, we both received and processed over one million requests within a single fiscal year. And agencies proactively posted a staggering 226 million records to their websites during this same period.

I know that these achievements did not just happen. They are the result of difficult, often painstaking work by FOIA professionals throughout our government — many of them right here in this room and participating online. Hour-by-hour and line-by-line, you worked to apply the presumption of openness and shine light on the government’s policies and operations. Later on in the program, we will recognize some of the individuals who have inspired us with the dedication and innovative strategies that they bring to bear in their administration of FOIA.

I’m especially proud of the work we’ve done right here at the Department of Justice. Over the past year, we received more than 110,000 requests — a record — and processed over 144,000 requests — another record. In so doing, we were able to achieve a 32% reduction in our backlog. Twenty-eight components either maintained a zero backlog, reduced their backlogs, or had a modest increase of less than 100 requests.

These figures reflect a tremendous amount of work and creative thinking by the Department’s own FOIA professionals, who deserve a special thank you. But our work is not done. At the direction of the Deputy Attorney General, OIP is working closely with the eight components that account for the largest portion of the Department’s remaining backlog, or whose backlog has grown substantially in recent years, to create backlog reduction plans and goals. In developing these plans, OIP and the components have reevaluated the strengths of their FOIA programs, considered alternative ways to address the root causes of the backlogs, and identified what would be needed to reach reduction targets. In the coming months, OIP will be sharing government-wide guidance for agencies on the preparation of their own backlog reduction plans.

Over the past year, OIP has also made significant progress on several exciting new initiatives aimed at increasing government transparency and fulfilling the commitments made in the Fifth Open Government Partnership National Action Plan.

Last March, OIP issued an updated Self-Assessment Toolkit, which provides resources for agencies to use when assessing their administration of FOIA. The updated toolkit includes modules for proactive disclosures, administrative appeals, technology, and many other topics.

Last October, OIP launched a new search tool on — the enchantingly named “FOIA Wizard” — that helps members of the public locate commonly requested government information and identify the proper agency to which to submit a FOIA request. People can use the Wizard to locate immigration records, social security records, military records, and more. I know Bobby is planning to speak more about the Wizard and our plans to expand its functionality over time.

And just this week, OIP will publish for public comment shared baseline business standards that will make it easier for agencies to acquire technology and, in turn, improve efficiency and consistency in processing FOIA requests.

In short, FOIA professionals have had a busy year — and there is much more to come in the year ahead. I want to thank you for joining us today for our Sunshine Week celebration and for your dedication to public service. I am inspired by everything that you do to fulfill the values of openness, transparency, and accountability that Congress enshrined in FOIA more than 50 years ago. And I am heartened to see just how much progress we’ve made in advancing those values in the last year. Your work is the sunlight required for an open and accountable government.

Thank you all again, and I hope you enjoy today’s program.

Updated March 11, 2024