Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Melanie, for the kind introduction, and thank you to the entire staff of the Office of Information Policy (OIP) for putting together today’s event. I am very pleased to be here today to celebrate the many FOIA professionals across our government who are committed to the implementation of this important law.
On President Obama’s first full day in office, he issued a memorandum to the heads of all federal departments and agencies directing them to administer the FOIA with a clear presumption: "In the face of doubt, openness prevails." The President also instructed the Attorney General to issue new FOIA guidelines that would reaffirm the federal government’s commitment to accountability and transparency.
We are here today on the sixth anniversary of the release of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, which instructed agencies to take proactive steps to inform citizens about their government. The Guidelines also called upon government personnel to understand that the responsibility of an effective FOIA administration belongs to us all.
Since the Guidelines were issued, our FOIA professionals across the government have processed over three million FOIA requests. Today we recognize their hard work and important service to the government and to the public.
Here at the Department of Justice, our FOIA professionals have been hard at work on a number of new initiatives.
We established a FOIA Council to improve overall awareness of the Department’s administration of the FOIA and to serve as a critical forum for discussing issues affecting the Department as a whole. We also established the FOIA Improvement Initiative, through which OIP conducted a comprehensive review of the FOIA operations for all thirty-seven Department components and identified best practices and where improvements can be made.
The Department is also continually looking at ways to improve the public’s understanding of the FOIA request process, as well as its access to FOIA data, through our central resource, FOIA.gov. Since the launch of FOIA.gov in 2011, over 2.5 million people have watched the website’s instructional videos about the FOIA process. And we have taken steps to make it easier for the public to locate material that agencies proactively post.
We are also committed to ensuring government-wide compliance with the FOIA through training and policy guidance. Just last week, OIP announced the release of a new suite of FOIA training resources designed to assist the federal workforce in understanding their responsibilities. This collection of training tools will help ensure that important resources for understanding the law are available for all federal employees across the government, from the senior executive, to the employee whose records may become subject to disclosure, to the FOIA professionals that we rely on for processing records for disclosure.
This past year the Department also launched the Best Practices Workshop Series, a new government-wide initiative aimed at gathering FOIA professionals to share experiences, lessons, and strategies for success. These workshops have been held on a number of different topics, including reducing backlogs and improving timeliness, proactive disclosures, and utilizing technology to improve FOIA processing. To extend the reach of these workshops even further, OIP recently launched a new page on its website where guidance and resources dedicated to the Best Practices Workshop Series can be accessed.
These steps to spread awareness and expertise across the government are vital to promoting FOIA’s objective of transparency and openness. But they are especially important because achieving transparency without compromising interests such as the effectiveness of law enforcement, the ability to conduct sensitive internal deliberations, the privacy of the tens of millions of Americans who have provided sensitive information to the government, and the protection of national security requires hard work and careful line-drawing. As the Senate Report from FOIA’s original enactment in 1965 notes, the purpose of FOIA is to achieve “the fullest responsible disclosure” of federal records.
Every day, many of the professionals charged with implementing FOIA face the challenge of determining what falls within the limited set of potential disclosures that cannot responsibly be made. That determination carries significant consequences. On one hand, a disclosure could jeopardize a criminal investigation or put a confidential source in danger. On the other hand, giving in to the understandable instinct to err on the side of protecting information could fundamentally undermine our ability to allow the public to see and understand what their government is doing.
The only way to strike that balance – to ensure the fullest responsible disclosure – is through the diligent and careful examination of each and every request for information. Our FOIA professionals play a critical role in making that examination happen.
The President reminded us that when responding to FOIA requests we are to “act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that [we] are servants of the public.” So, as we celebrate our many accomplishments and milestones on the sixth anniversary of the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines, we can take pleasure in knowing that we are carrying out the President’s vision of a more open government and the Attorney General’s commitment to achieving a standard of excellence in FOIA administration.
I commend all of you for the dedication you continue to demonstrate in performing a difficult and important job, and now I am pleased to have the chance to honor the recipients of this year’s awards for outstanding contributions to our FOIA work.