Thank you, Melanie [Pustay], for your kind words, and for your outstanding leadership of the work that we highlight – and celebrate – during Sunshine Week. Since we gathered for this event last year, you and your team in the Office of Information Policy have continued to advance the Administration’s – and the Justice Department’s – open government goals. And you’ve signaled our ongoing commitment to integrity, accountability, and transparency.
Thank you all for your dedication to this work – and for everything you’ve done to organize today’s program and the rest of this week’s events. I also want to thank each of today’s participants – especially, our distinguished guest speakers – for sharing your perspectives and expertise with us this afternoon.
Today and throughout the week, we have an important opportunity to showcase and celebrate the progress that’s been made here at the Department – and all across the federal government – in realizing the promise of the Freedom of Information Act, and making good on what President Obama has called “a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government.”
This commitment – and the unprecedented efforts that we’ve launched to fulfill it – underscores the sacred bond of trust that must always exist between the government and all those we are privileged to serve. This is what drove the President – on his first full day in office – to call upon the Department of Justice to guide other agencies in the faithful implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, and to ensure compliance with both the letter – and the spirit – of this law.
In response, three years ago this week, I issued a memorandum to federal department and agency heads mandating changes in the way we approach, release, and distribute information. Since then, these guidelines have shifted the way our entire federal government operates. They’ve established a presumption of openness. And they have led agencies to manage the FOIA process more efficiently and effectively.
As a result, we’ve made meaningful, measurable progress in improving the way our Department – and its partners and counterparts – respond to disclosure requests. Thanks to Melanie’s outstanding team – and many others here today – we’ve developed promising new initiatives and improved current FOIA processes. In fact, for the second year in a row, the Department has achieved a release rate of more than 94 percent of requests where records were processed for disclosure. And we released nearly 80 percent of these records in their entirety.
Despite receiving over 60,000 FOIA requests in the last three fiscal years – and facing nearly unprecedented budgetary challenges over the same period – last year, the Department was able to reduce the backlog of pending requests by more than a quarter, and the backlog of administrative appeals by more than 40 percent. And we took a major step toward realizing our Open Government Plan by launching a comprehensive, government-wide Freedom of Information website – FOIA.Gov – which displays detailed statistics and serves as a vital resource for members of the public who would like to make requests. We also brought senior leadership offices – including my own – into a variety of efforts aimed at harnessing new technologies and tools to increase transparency. And – although this record of achievement has been nothing short of remarkable – I am proud to say that it’s only the beginning.
There’s no question that we’re on the right track. But I also recognize that we cannot yet be satisfied – and that Sunshine Week presents an invaluable opportunity not just to assess where we currently are, but also to identify ways to build upon the momentum we’ve created.
That’s why, today, I am pleased to announce two new improvements to FOIA administration that we are implementing here at the Department. First, we will begin posting monthly FOIA logs for requests made to my office, the Offices of the Deputy Attorney General, the Associate Attorney General, and other senior leadership offices. These logs will publicly identify the subject matter and disposition of each request – bringing greater transparency to the FOIA process and making it easier for people to locate information that may be of interest to them. Secondly, we will introduce a new way for members of the public to submit FOIA requests to the Department’s senior leadership offices online, and to track these requests at any time.
I am also pleased to announce two additional online tools that will make FOIA.Gov even more responsive to those seeking information from a variety of government agencies. We’ve introduced a simplified search function that will allow visitors to search all federal government websites at the same time – connecting members of the public not only to the documents in FOIA Libraries, but also to the proactive disclosures that agencies regularly make through their own websites. And we’ve added a feature that links the FOIA systems from more than 100 offices across the government, making it easier than ever for individuals to find, and make, requests electronically.
These are simple, common-sense improvements that will help streamline the ways in which ordinary Americans can participate in the work of their government. And – alongside our efforts to compile and report key FOIA statistics, log requests, track agency performance, and increase accountability when it comes to FOIA compliance – they will reinforce the culture of openness we’ve worked to instill across the federal government.
In many ways, we owe these advancements – and scores of others – to the men and women who serve the Department’s Office of Information Policy. And while we all can be encouraged by – and proud of – the progress that’s been made, Sunshine Week is an important reminder that this is no time to become complacent. The responsibility of expanding upon current efforts to ensure transparency and accountability rests with each of us. And, as I look around this crowd today, I am confident that we can continue to expect – and deliver – great things.
On behalf of President Obama and my colleagues across the Cabinet, I want to thank you for your dedication to fulfilling the goals we share, and our duties to the American people. I am committed to this work. I am inspired by your contributions to it. And I look forward to our continued progress.