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Assessing the National Action Plan
April 2nd, 2013 Posted by

Since the signing of both his FOIA and Transparency and Open Government memoranda on his first full day in office, President Obama has committed to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”  Attorney General Eric Holder, in his FOIA Guidelines issued in March 2009, built on these directives, instructing agencies on how to apply the presumption of openness called for by the President and emphasizing the need for agencies to release records proactively and promptly and to utilize technology in FOIA administration.

Seeking to do still more, in September 201o, at a speech to the United Nations, the President challenged countries around the world to join the United States in adopting “specific commitments to strengthen the foundations of freedom.”  A year later, the President joined seven global leaders, as well as a group of international civil society organizations, to launch the Open Government Partnership. This was followed by release of the U.S.  National Action Plan (PDF), which highlighted “a set of twenty-six concrete commitments that help increase public integrity, promote public participation, manage public resources more effectively, and improve public services.”

Two of the commitments in the National Action Plan focused on continued improvements in the administration of the FOIA by:

  • Professionalizing FOIA administration through creation of a new civil service personnel category for officials who specialize in FOIA and other government information programs, and
  • Expanding use of technology to achieve greater efficiencies in FOIA administration, including utilization of technology to assist in searching for and processing records, as well as to ensure that information posted by agencies online is searchable and readily usable by the public.

Last week, the White House released an assessment on the implementation of this National Action Plan (PDF).  Included within the assessment was a discussion of the work done to fulfill the two commitments related to FOIA administration.  The assessment highlights that agencies have made improvements to FOIA administration, by, among other things, “significantly improve[ing] the average processing times for requests” and reducing the backlog of pending requests by 46% since 2008.  The assessment also evaluates the two key FOIA initiatives that were part of the National Action Plan.

As to creation of a distinct job series for FOIA professionals, as previously described by the Office of Information Policy (OIP), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced the creation of the Government Information Series during Sunshine Week 2012.  The new job series recognizes the professional nature of the work of FOIA and Privacy Act professionals who are “responsible for promoting accountability and transparency while safeguarding certain types of vital government information.”  The assessment notes that:

“[t]he Administration is proud that this commitment has been met, but also recognizes that the task of professionalizing FOIA is not over.  The U.S. Government will continue to work to ensure that human resources professionals across the government understand this new job series and give this job series the proper elevation that it deserves.”

As to expanded use of technology, the assessment declares that “[t]echnology has the potential to transform FOIA administration,” and describes the “significant steps” taken by agencies to increase their use of technology in the administration of FOIA.   The assessment notes that over “one hundred offices across the U.S. Government are now employing web portals that allow the public to electronically submit a FOIA request.”  The assessment recognizes that “[o]ne of the most common difficulties in processing FOIA requests is the large amount of time spent by FOIA personnel searching for, de-duplicating, and conducting initial responsiveness reviews on records.”  To meet that challenge the assessment describes that several agencies “have replaced time-intensive manual processes with software applications that automatically” do many of these tasks.  The assessment also highlights OIP’s recently completed pilot program on leveraging digital tools in the processing of FOIA requests, as well as OIP’s FOIA Technology Working Group, which serves as a forum for agencies to exchange ideas on uses of technology, a forum that is particularly important given that, as the assessment recognizes, “FOIA tools are not one-size-fits-all.”

The Justice Department’s government-wide FOIA resource, FOIA.gov, had a number of enhancements incorporated into the site since its launch during Sunshine Week 2011, which were noted in the assessment.  The addition of quarterly FOIA metrics (as well as the web based tool used to collect these statistics) and the site’s “Find” feature are just two of the enhancements made to the flagship initiative of the Justice Department’s Open Government Plan (version 1.0) (PDF).

Noting that progress continues to be made in the use of technology both to improve FOIA administration and to enhance the availability of government information online, the assessment describes some of the  upcoming efforts by OIP in this area.  For example,  the assessment highlights OIP’s issuance of further guidance on the use of metadata when posting records to “allow for the creation of a virtual government-wide FOIA Library” and OIP’s development of “an online training course about the FOIA to be available to all federal employees in keeping with the Attorney General’s mandate that FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.”

The assessment acknowledges that the processing of FOIA requests is a “fundamentally labor intensive task, and working to improve timeliness is especially difficult at a time when initial requests have been steadily increasing and budgets have been decreasing.”  By focusing on technology and “providing agencies and FOIA professionals with new tools and expanding access to training online,” the assessment concludes that “the Administration is working hard to fulfill its commitment to improve transparency through further use of technology.”

These are just a few of the important initiatives contained within the assessment and the National Action Plan itself.  As noted by the Justice Department after the United States entry into the Open Government Partnership:

An open and good government is much more than releasing information.  It is about harnessing the skill and talents of the American people, establishing greater collaboration among Federal agencies, and ensuring that the taxpayer’s money is wisely spent.”

The Department is fully committed to the principles that the President announced on his first day in office.  Today and in the days ahead, both OIP and the Justice Department will continue their efforts to improve the administration of the FOIA across the government.  While there is still work to be done, the Department and the Administration remain “committed to continuing this work.”

For more information on the Department’s Open Government efforts, please visit the Open Government Page.  For the latest developments in FOIA, continue to follow FOIA Post, and for the latest news from the Justice Department, please visit The Justice Blog.

Tracking Agency Progress to Implement the FOIA Guidelines
August 7th, 2012 Posted by

As a part of his 2009 FOIA Guidelines, Attorney General Holder directed the Chief FOIA Officers at each agency to review “all aspects of their agencies’ FOIA administration” and to report annually to the Justice Department on the steps taken “improve FOIA operations and facilitate information disclosure.”  These “Chief FOIA Officer Reports” provide descriptions of the steps agencies have taken to improve FOIA administration and serve as a complement to the agencies’ Annual FOIA Reports, which contain detailed statistics on the numbers of requests received and processed during the preceding fiscal year.

Last year, the Office of Information Policy (OIP) conducted an assessment of the progress made in FOIA administration by the fifteen executive departments.  OIP identified metrics for assessment, such as improvements to efficiency and reduction in backlogs, and then used data from both agency Annual FOIA Reports and Chief FOIA Officer Reports to score the agencies on their progress in those areas.   

For 2012, we have expanded the assessment to include all ninety-nine agencies subject to the FOIA in fiscal year 2011. We also have changed several of the metrics, taking into account the progress that has already been made in implementing the FOIA Guidelines to make the assessment progressively more challenging.   

For 2012, we have also prepared a narrative to accompany the assessment. The narrative provides a wealth of examples from large and small agencies of the improvements that have been made to help improve the FOIA process.   Lastly, OIP has included guidance to agencies to assist them in making additional improvements in the years ahead.

The 2012 assessment provides a “visual snapshot” of agency activities in five key areas, specifically:

  • applying the presumption of openness,
  • increasing efficiencies,
  • making information available proactively,
  • using technology, and
  • reducing backlogs and improving timeliness. 

The assessment is meant to “readily [illustrate] the many areas where agencies have made real progress and also serves to highlight the areas where further improvement can be made.”  Notably, our review found that:

“Agencies continue to make concrete progress in implementing the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines.  The 2012 assessment shows that agencies are applying the presumption of openness, are taking steps to ensure that they have effective systems in place for responding to requests, are increasing both the content on their websites and its usability, and are offering requesters the opportunity to submit requests electronically.”

At the same time, the assessment shows that there are areas where further improvements can be made.  For example, while sixty-six agencies either had no backlog of pending requests or were able to reduce an existing backlog, there were others whose backlogs increased.  Similarly, while sixty-eight agencies closed all of their ten oldest pending requests, or had none pending to close, there were others who did not meet this milestone.

By assessing agencies on a wide variety of factors that all contribute to improving information disclosure, the public, as well as the agencies themselves, can readily see where agencies have excelled, and where further work can still be done, in improving the administration of the FOIA.

You can access the 2012 Chief FOIA Officer Report Summary and Assessment, along with summaries from previous years, success stories from the Chief FOIA Officer Reports, and the reports themselves on our reports page.

 

FOIA Successes
March 14th, 2012 Posted by

Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 to give people access to government information and charged the executive branch with the important responsibility of administering the law. The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy oversees agency compliance with the FOIA and encourages all agencies to fully comply with both the letter and the spirit of the law.

As a result, all agencies are required to report to the Department of Justice on their FOIA compliance through the submission of Annual FOIA Reports. Annual FOIA reports contain detailed statistics about an agency’s FOIA performance throughout the year.

In 2009, as a part of his FOIA Guidelines, Attorney General Eric Holder asked agencies to go beyond the numbers. He highlighted the important role played by the Chief FOIA Officers (CFOs) at each federal agency and called on them to review the administration of the FOIA at their agency and report on their efforts to improve FOIA operations.

These Chief FOIA Officer reports allow agencies to outline and describe the wide variety of concrete steps undertaken to implement the Attorney General’s Guidelines, many of which are unquantifiable through the statistical annual reporting.  They have become a vital tool for assessing the varied and continued strides that agencies are making in improving FOIA operations across the government.

Agencies are institutionalizing the presumption of openness through training and outreach. They are overhauling their FOIA systems from the ground up and embracing technology both in the processing of records and in the release of information. They are developing apps and allowing requesters to submit and track requests online.  In short, they are making the FOIA better.

The 2012 Chief FOIA Officer Reports demonstrate that agencies have continued the hard work of the past two years and are building upon the foundation of the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines to promote greater transparency and FOIA efficiency at their agencies.  These efforts include:

  • The Economic Research Service at the Department of Agriculture published its Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America, an innovative online mapping tool that provides county-level statistical data on the people, jobs, agriculture, and characteristics of counties across the United States.  The Atlas is relied upon by policymakers and members of the public with the need for data on population, age structure, race and ethnicity, income, employment, agricultural well-being, and other statistical information.
  • The Department of the Treasury conducted a Six Sigma review of its FOIA administration to eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies in its process.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families installed a live chat feature on its website through which users can engage with an Information Specialist who will assist with questions, concerns, or trouble locating agency information.

These are just a small fraction of the dynamic range of success stories reported by agencies in their 2012 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. 

The Office of Information Policy has compiled a selection of these successes from across federal departments.  We also encourage you to read about the many transparency initiatives by viewing the 2012 Chief FOIA Officer Reports from all federal departments and agencies. You can find them on our Reports page.

For more information please visit the Office of Information Policy and FOIA.gov

Kicking Off Sunshine Week 2012
March 12th, 2012 Posted by

 This afternoon, the Department of Justice kicked off Sunshine Week with a celebration in the Great Hall at Main Justice.   Attended by members of the public and agency personnel from around the government, the event marked not only the start of Sunshine Week, but also the third anniversary of the release of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines.

Attorney General Holder provided the keynote speech, where he highlighted a number of accomplishments of the Department of Justice over the last year, including:

  • Processing more FOIA requests than were received, despite the third straight year of receiving over 61,000 FOIA requests and the fourth highest number of requests received by any agency
  • Releasing records in full or in part in 94.5% of cases where records were processed for disclosure
  • Releasing records in full, with no information withheld, for 79% of such requests
  • Reducing the backlogs of pending requests by 26% and pending administrative appeals by 41%

In his remarks , the Attorney General recognized that Sunshine Week presents the government with the opportunity to realize the promise of the Freedom of Information Act, fulfilling what President Obama has called “a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government.”  The Attorney General continued with:

“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.”

Joining the Attorney General onstage were Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West and Office of Information Policy (OIP) Director Melanie Ann Pustay.  In her remarks at the event, Director Pustay commented that:

“Sunshine Week is an opportunity to reflect upon our accomplishments and to share lessons learned over the last three years as we refocus on our shared mission of strengthening our democracy through a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government.”

Additionally, at the invitation of the Department, representatives from four federal agencies also spoke at this commemoration, highlighting their own agency successes over the last year.  Sharing the stage with the Attorney General were representatives from the Social Security Administration, Federal Communications Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of the Interior.  Further information about the activities of these, and all federal agencies, is available in agency Annual FOIA Reports and Chief FOIA Officer Reports, available on the OIP website and FOIA.gov.

These agencies, as well as the assembled FOIA and government professionals from around the government who gathered for the event, were further recognized by Director Pustay, who noted that the government has “the dedication of thousands of agency FOIA professionals who work every day to bring improvements to the FOIA process.  Through their systematic procedural improvements, their greater use of technology and the Web, their innovation and outreach, we are institutionalizing change and achieving long-lasting, sustainable results.”

As the Department continues to celebrate Sunshine Week, be sure to continue reading FOIA Post and The Justice Blog for more information on the Department’s continued efforts and recent accomplishments over the last year in promoting open government, transparency, and the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines.

You can read the full text of the Attorney General’s remarks here

Kicking Off Sunshine Week 2012
March 12th, 2012 Posted by

 This afternoon, the Department of Justice kicked off Sunshine Week with a celebration in the Great Hall at Main Justice.   Attended by members of the public and agency personnel from around the government, the event marked not only the start of Sunshine Week, but also the third anniversary of the release of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines. Read the rest of this entry »

One Year of FOIA.gov
March 12th, 2012 Posted by
The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act

This week the Department of Justice is proud to celebrate Sunshine Week – a celebration of openness in government. Today is not only the start of the week, but the one year anniversary of the FOIA.gov. 

FOIA.gov is a site dedicated to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law at the very heart of open government. Congress passed the FOIA in 1966 and since then it has been known as the law that keeps citizens “in the know” about what their government is doing. Any citizen can make a FOIA request about any topic.

As the flagship initiative of the Department of Justice’s Open Government Plan, FOIA.gov continues to be the government’s comprehensive resource on how the law works, where to make requests, and what to expect in response. 

FOIA.gov graphically displaying all agencies FOIA statistics for all government agencies, which are reported in each agency’s Annual FOIA Report.  

Data examples include:

  •     How many requests were received?
  •     How many requests were processed?
  •     How old is an agency’s oldest request?
  •     How much did it cost the government to answer requests?

This information has been collected for years, but until FOIA.gov came along analyzing the data was difficult and time-consuming. FOIA.gov takes the data and lets you search, sort and compare the information with just a few clicks. You can compare one agency to another. You can even compare the data from within the offices of a single agency.

In addition to the annual reports, each agency now files a Chief FOIA Officer report. These reports go beyond the numerical data to describe the wide variety of concrete steps they have taken to make their agencies more open and transparent.  The department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) analyzes data and trends in these reports. This year, we are especially encouraged to see how much information agencies are already posting for public consumption online. 

FOIA.gov’s Find feature offers a convenient way to search across all agency websites to see what information is already available on a topic, without the need to submit a FOIA request.  Because agencies are constantly providing the public with new information on a proactive and on-going basis, FOIA.gov’s dedicated Find feature is a useful tool to quickly gather these proactive disclosures from various agency websites and to stay on top of information as it becomes available.

In addition to the Find feature, two other important enhancements have recently been added to FOIA.gov.  Earlier this month, links to online request forms for the FOIA offices were added, including the Office of the Attorney General here at the Justice Department.  This will make it easier than ever for individuals to find and make requests electronically. Additionally, FOIA.Gov has just been made more accessible than ever with the recent translation of critical FOIA information into Spanish, or “FOIA en Español.” 

As FOIA.gov begins its second year, we look forward to new and dynamic developments for FOIA.gov 2.0 which will make learning about your right to access government records, finding government information and measuring the government’s progress on FOIA more meaningful than ever.

 
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