Thank you, Bobby, for that introduction. And more importantly, thank you for your leadership of the Office of Information Policy (OIP) and the guidance that you provide to the Justice Department and agencies across the federal government to increase compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and to strengthen government transparency.
So, good morning! Thank you all for joining us for the Department of Justice. It’s our kick-off for Sunshine Week. And this annual event is now in its 13th year. And it’s all the more special today because this is our first time coming together in person since the pandemic to celebrate the importance of the FOIA and the critical role that federal employees, particularly agency FOIA professionals, play in ensuring a transparent, accountable and effective government.
As many of you know, Sunshine Week coincides with the birthday of President James Madison, who is widely regarded as the founder of open government. As President Madison wrote in : “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy … A people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
The passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 marked a historic milestone in our nation’s path toward realizing the informed citizenry that Madison envisioned. The FOIA, for the first time, established a legal right of access to government records and a presumption of disclosure, requiring records to be released to any member of the public, unless one of the FOIA’s nine exemptions applies. At its core, the FOIA fosters public trust – trust of those who are charged with faithfully executing the laws are in fact doing their jobs with integrity and in the public’s interest.
For over 55 years, the FOIA has been used by journalists, civil society, scholars and everyday citizens to gain access to information about how their government works. I know firsthand how critical FOIA releases can be to shining a light on government policies and programs. I filed FOIA requests during my career outside of government and have been the beneficiary of disclosures made possible, and indeed mandatory, by the FOIA.
In the past fiscal year alone, the government saw a record high of 920,000 new FOIA requests. During that time, agencies processed over 870,000 requests, released millions of pages of records to the public and posted over 215 million records on their websites.
As the Associate Attorney General, I am privileged to serve as the department’s own chief FOIA Officer – a position I know that many of you occupy in your own agencies. In this role, I have seen up close the substantial agency resources that we dedicate to administering the FOIA. In this past fiscal year, we processed 82,868 requests and proactively posted over 39,000 records. At the same time, I am mindful that here at DOJ and across the government, there is a continuing need to do more to meet the ever increasing number of requests. I am grateful to both FOIA professionals within the Justice Department and those of you across the government for your work and your tireless commitment to the FOIA and those evolving needs.
Here at the Justice Department, we are not only an agency subject to the FOIA ourselves. We also have a distinct role in encouraging government-wide compliance with the FOIA. Last March, the Attorney General issued new FOIA Guidelines that update and strengthen our commitment to transparency in government operations and the fair and effective administration of the FOIA. The 2022 guidelines direct the heads of all Executive Branch departments and agencies to apply a presumption of openness in administering the 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 the guidelines also emphasize the importance of proactive disclosures and removing barriers to accessing government information.
Since their issuance, OIP has been working with agencies to implement the guidelines. These efforts will be detailed in agencies’ 2023 Chief FOIA Officer Reports that are being posted online this week.
I am also excited to announce that today, OIP is issuing new guidance to agencies on applying the Attorney General’s Guidelines to administer the FOIA with a presumption of openness, including through the application of the foreseeable harm standard that is now codified in the FOIA. Among other things, this new OIP guidance highlights the need for agencies to process records with an eye toward disclosure by applying the FOIA’s foreseeable harm analysis on a case-by-case basis and also underscores the importance of working cooperatively with FOIA requesters.
This new guidance is one of many resources provided by OIP to help agencies fulfill their FOIA responsibilities. Other critical resources include the DOJ Guide to the FOIA and our FOIA Counselor Service.
In the past year, OIP has also made available to all agencies new standard FOIA e-Learning modules that tailor training to specific government audiences, including senior executives, FOIA professionals and all federal employees. On Sept. 8 of last year, I sent a memo to all Chief FOIA Officers and agency general counsels emphasizing the importance of FOIA training and highlighting these new resources. I urge all my colleagues across government to utilize these resources – and to reach out to OIP if there are other training needs that we can assist you with. We are here to help!
The department is also excited to lead three FOIA commitments aimed at further strengthening government transparency as part of the United States’ Fifth Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, which Bobby will speak about in more detail. Just last week, OIP fulfilled the first of those commitments by releasing an updated FOIA self-assessment toolkit that allows agencies to objectively assess their FOIA programs with key guidance for improvement. And the department has committed to further enhancing the user experience on FOIA.gov by developing a new tool to help requesters more easily find information and by establishing shared FOIA business standards across the government. More to come on each of these commitments in the coming months.
As FOIA veterans among us know, the Justice Department has long held the view that the “FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.” But the promise of the FOIA is made real by all of you, the dedicated FOIA professionals who day in and day out interact with FOIA requesters, who each year conduct detailed reviews of millions of pages of government records and who scrupulously balance the FOIA’s presumption of disclosure while safeguarding important interests such as personal privacy and national security. Thank you. Today, we recognize your work on behalf of the American people to keep our government open and transparent and ensure that this democracy of ours always works on behalf of the public that we serve.
So, I want to thank you again for joining us today for our celebration of Sunshine Week and for your dedication to public service. Your work is the sunlight required for an open and accountable government – it strengthens our democracy. Thank you all again, and have a very bright Sunshine Week.
* This speech has been udpated to reflect the accurate year intented to be referenced of 1882.