Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Melanie [Pustay], for the kind introduction and for your effective leadership of the Office of Information Policy (OIP), and of the government’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) efforts more broadly. I also want to thank the OIP staff for putting together this event.
I am very pleased to be here today to celebrate the start of Sunshine Week. This year’s event is particularly special because, as Melanie noted, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act. It is fitting that we will be recognizing three individuals today with the Lifetime Service Award for excellence in the administration of the FOIA; it reminds us both of the growing importance of this law since its passage 50 years ago and of the many years FOIA professionals have devoted to its implementation.
President Johnson signed the FOIA into law on July 4 – Independence Day – 1966. That act marked an important milestone on our nation’s path toward a more open and accessible government. As Rep. Dante Fascell noted when the bill passed the House of Representatives, the FOIA concerns “one of the most fundamental issues of our democracy...the right of the people to be fully informed about the policies and activities of the Federal Government.”
The FOIA was enacted at a time when the federal government was pursuing an increasing range of programs designed to serve the needs of the American public. Through the FOIA, Congress sought to bolster the public’s right of access to the records of this post-war, post-New Deal government. The FOIA made three important changes to the disclosure standards that previously had been included in the Administrative Procedures Act. First, the FOIA made records available to “any person.” Prior to that, government records would be made available only to “persons properly and directly concerned.” Second, the FOIA set out concrete grounds to exempt information from disclosure, replacing comparatively vague bases that included “good cause found,” that withholding was “in the public interest,” and that records concerned the “internal management” of an agency. Third, the FOIA provided for judicial review of the government’s decisions to withhold requested information. Ultimately, by providing specific standards for the disclosure of information, the FOIA both empowered individuals to access governmental records and provided more specific direction and guidance to agencies.
Over the last 50 years, the public demand for information through the FOIA has grown considerably. And so have agencies’ abilities to meet that demand. This past week, we published annual statistics on administration of the FOIA for all 100 agencies. And I can tell you that the government continues to receive and process record high numbers of requests. This past fiscal year alone the government received over 700,000 requests. And through the tireless efforts of our dedicated FOIA professionals, I am pleased to report that the government overall reduced its backlog of requests by 35.6 percent.
Upon taking office, President Obama issued a memorandum on the FOIA to all agencies. He characterized the FOIA as “the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government.” Here at the Department of Justice, we are proud of the special role we play to promote compliance with the FOIA across the federal government. This past year, the department’s Office of Information Policy focused on improving the government’s overall efforts in several ways.
First, OIP highlighted and advanced agencies’ proactive disclosure efforts – programs under which the public can receive more information about the operations and activities of the government without making a FOIA request. OIP recently led a pilot with seven agencies to test the feasibility of posting FOIA releases online for public viewing. OIP also issued detailed guidance on the proactive disclosure provisions of the FOIA that focused on methods of disclosure, strategies for identifying frequently requested records and tips for ensuring that information is posted in a form that is useful to the public.
OIP issued additional guidance to agencies on establishing standards to address a requester’s continued interest in a pending request, a topic that was of particular interest to the requester community.
OIP also continued its Best Practices Workshop Series to encourage the use of proven information processing methods for the benefit of FOIA administration across the government. Through these workshops, agencies are able to learn from one another and share successes. This year, FOIA professionals from many different agencies and representatives from the requester community joined with us for workshops on customer service and dispute resolution, best practices from the requester’s perspective, best practices for small agencies and best practices for reducing backlogs and improving timeliness.
Finally, recognizing the importance of quality FOIA training to a successful FOIA program, last year OIP also launched a suite of four new electronic FOIA training resources. These training resources were designed to ensure that individuals at all levels of federal service have access to quality FOIA training, reinforcing the department’s message that “FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.” Many department employees have taken advantage of these training resources and most agencies have utilized the training modules for their staff as well.
But we are not just focused on FOIA efforts generally across the government. As the Department of Justice’s Chief FOIA Officer, I am responsible for ensuring efficient FOIA operation within our agency. Like many other agencies, the department is hard at work in responding to the nearly 70,000 requests we receive each year. In the face of increasing numbers of requests, department FOIA professionals not only processed more requests than were received this past year, but also increased the number of requests processed from the prior year by nearly 8 percent. Additionally, the department improved its processing times; closed its oldest requests, appeals and consultations; and maintained a high release rate of over 93 percent.
The Department of Justice has also established a number of recent initiatives to improve our own administration of the law. For example, a couple years ago we launched the Department of Justice FOIA Improvement Initiative to conduct a comprehensive review of the FOIA operations for all 37 department components. We collected best practices and identified areas where improvements could be made. As a result of this initiative, significant steps have been taken towards improving FOIA websites, reducing backlogs and streamlining processing. The success of this initiative has prompted OIP to evaluate all of our FOIA programs on an annual basis and to issue a toolkit so that other agencies can benefit from our model of self-assessment.
The department has also continued to place a great emphasis on our own proactive disclosure of records. For example, the FBI manages a robust FOIA library which contains over 6,700 documents and other forms of information of public interest. This past year alone the FBI added records on 31 new subjects to its FOIA Library.
As we celebrate 50 years of the FOIA in the United States, I am also very proud to see how we have worked with other countries around the world on access to information laws and open government practices.
In October of last year, representatives from the United States Government and the Department of Justice joined 1,500 participants from governments and civil society organizations around the globe to participate in the Open Government Partnership Summit in Mexico City. Founded in 2011 by the United States and seven other countries, the Open Government Partnership has grown to 69 participating countries that are committed to working both domestically and internationally to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and transform the way the governments serve and engage with the public.
Each participating member of the Open Government Partnership is required to work with civil society to develop an Open Government National Action Plan that includes specific and measurable commitments to advance transparency, accountability, participation and technological innovation. The United States’ third National Action Plan, which was released in October 2015, consists of 45 commitments on a wide range of actions, including several initiatives that will continue to improve agencies’ administration of the FOIA. For example, as part of these efforts, the department will work to expand the services offered on the FOIA.gov website and will further assist agencies in improving their proactive disclosures.
On this 50th anniversary of the FOIA, it is appropriate that we celebrate how far we have come in making government information accessible to the public. But for all the progress we have made, we certainly still have more work to do. As we look to the future of the FOIA, we acknowledge that we need to train more professionals; respond to exploding numbers of requests faster, including through more effective use of technology, and ensure that content of our responses are as they should be. As far as we have come, we cannot rest.
But that is why I am pleased to be here today with so many FOIA professionals from across the government. As we reflect the anniversary of this landmark law, as well as the president’s vision of a more open government, so many of you here can be proud of your tireless work in support of FOIA administration across the government. I want to thank you all for your dedication. And I know that your commitment will allow the government to continue to make gains in this important work.