Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you so much, Bobby, for that kind introduction. The leadership of the Department feels so lucky to have you at the helm of the Office of Information Policy. Not many people could fill the very big (but also very small and very stylish) shoes of the great Melanie Pustay.
Welcome to the Department of Justice’s 2020 Sunshine Week Kick-Off Event. As many of you know, this coming Monday is the birthday of President James Madison. Madison is widely regarded as the founding father of open government, so it is a fitting tribute that we celebrate Sunshine Week concurrently with his birthday. In the classical tradition, democracy is the regime under which citizens “rule and are ruled in turn”—the regime of self-government. Participation in self-government fosters the virtues of fortitude, self-reliance, and practical wisdom that are key characteristics of the American experiment. It was Madison who recognized the fundamental importance of information in cultivating the engaged citizenry necessary to the maintenance of a healthy republic. In 1782 he famously wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Today, the Freedom of Information Act provides access to information at a speed and volume that President Madison could hardly have imagined. In 1966, Congress enacted in FOIA a revolutionary right of access to government records. It required the government to apply a presumption of disclosure to its own records, and made that presumption rebuttable only when those records fall within one of FOIA’s defined exemptions. The result is that each year the federal government releases literally millions of documents—colossal amounts of data—to American citizens. That information allows the American people greater visibility into how their government is working. It is often said that FOIA makes the government more accountable. True enough. But Madison would also have recognized in FOIA a tool that could be harnessed in service of a wiser and more studied citizenry—and hence in service of a more statesmanlike government by the people.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Department of Justice’s Sunshine Week Event, so it’s an appropriate time to honor the FOIA professionals and leaders joining us both here and via live stream across the country. The work that goes on between request and response requires more skill and more perseverance than most citizens—and even most government officials—realize. That’s why I am proud to celebrate your tireless commitment to meeting the many challenges involved in administering FOIA. Quite simply, FOIA’s promises would be meaningless without dedicated public servants like you working every day to make them a reality.
Just this past fiscal year the government received over 850,000 FOIA requests. In response, we processed over 875,000 requests, responding to a wide range of requesters including news media outlets, advocacy organizations, academic scholars, and ordinary citizens interested in their government. (Yes, you heard those numbers right—we as a government made inroads on our FOIA backlog last year.)
From the perspective of the average citizen, it may be tempting to assume that answering FOIA requests is a straightforward and easy process. But just because information might possibly exist somewhere in government records doesn’t mean it can easily be found, plucked off the shelf, and shipped in a tidy package to the requestor. Far from it.
Requests often seek numerous and varied types of records, which require searches in multiple locations. Once located, these often-voluminous records must be carefully reviewed. While FOIA requires a presumption of disclosure, the law also recognizes important exemptions to this presumption—exemptions necessary to protect our national security, the privacy of our fellow citizens, and the functioning of law enforcement. Failing to properly apply those exemptions risks causing serious harm to the nation. By the same token, improperly asserting those exemptions risks thwarting the FOIA’s goal of promoting transparency. So, FOIA professionals must carefully examine millions of pages of records to apply each of the FOIA’s exemptions meticulously before authorizing them for release. It is, by necessity, a laborious process.
And the work of government FOIA professionals has become even more challenging in the past few years. FOIA requests continue to increase in both volume and complexity. Simultaneously, an increase in nearly immediate litigation brought by some savvy frequent requesters strains our FOIA officials in their efforts to respond to every request in a timely way. Our FOIA professionals must be commended for redoubling their efforts to serve ordinary citizens while litigation on the part of the well-funded pushes ordinary citizens to the end of the queue. So, thank you for everything you have done. Please know that we appreciate you and all of your work on behalf of the American people.
Later on in the program, we will have a chance to recognize the outstanding work of some of our colleagues across agencies. Before we do that, though, I’d like to say a few words about and on behalf of our DOJ FOIA professionals in particular. Here at the Department of Justice, we take seriously our unique responsibility to encourage government-wide compliance with FOIA. I take no credit for OIP’s accomplishments, but I do take great pride in serving as the Department’s Chief FOIA Officer and in working with Bobby and OIP to ensure that our FOIA programs are equipped to handle the Department’s FOIA responsibilities. The Department is completely committed to providing agencies with a range of resources and counsel to assist you in your FOIA administration.
OIP’s work over the past year bears that out. Just this past October, OIP completed a full update to the Department of Justice’s Guide to the FOIA, a comprehensive treatise on the FOIA that is widely relied upon by agencies and the public. If you have ever seen a physical copy of the Guide to the FOIA, you’ll understand what a massive undertaking that was. The Department also continues to provide essential FOIA training to thousands of agency FOIA professionals every year, as well as issuing detailed guidance on both the procedural and substantive aspects of the law. OIP is making good use of evolving technology in meeting the demands of the FOIA. For example, the Department has recently piloted, and is exploring, more advanced tools that can further assist FOIA professional through the use of artificial intelligence.
Another effort I would like to highlight today is the continued work of the Department on the National FOIA Portal launched during Sunshine Week 2018. FOIA.gov continues to serve as a central resource on the federal government’s administration of the FOIA. This past year, the Department has worked with fellow agencies on achieving interoperability with the portal. In addition, the Department continues to welcome both public and agency feedback on the site and to make improvements based on those comments. The Department also deployed a new Annual FOIA Report tool on FOIA.gov for agencies, which helps reduce agency burden and improves data quality. Through these advances OIP continues to advance Congress’s vision in ways that would have made President Madison proud.
In conclusion, we look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure that our administration of the FOIA continues to improve and that our government is held to the highest standards. Thank you all and have a very bright Sunshine Week.