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Justice Department Seeks Input for Third Open Government Plan
January 27th, 2014 Posted by

The Department of Justice is currently in the process of developing its third open government plan, which will outline additional “actions to implement the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration” as set out in President Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and the Open Government Directive.  As a part of this ongoing process, the department is seeking input from the public for ideas and opportunities to be more transparent, collaborative and participatory in how we carry out our various missions.

If you have any suggestions or ideas that you would like to share with the department as we continue  working on our new plan, please send an email to OpenGov@usdoj.gov with the subject line “3rd Open Government Plan Suggestion” by February 28, 2014.   

The department’s previous open government plans included a variety of new initiatives such as the launchings of FOIA.gov and FARA.gov, the establishment of a quarterly Freedom Of Information Act reporting requirement, and the expanded use of social media by various department components.  Additionally, these plans demonstrated a number of ways in which we collaborate with outside partners and engage the public on the ongoing work of the department.  We welcome your ideas for further ways in which we can serve the public though our newest open government plan and we look forward to completing this process with you.

 For more information on the department’s open government plans and initiatives, please visit our open government homepage.

 

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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.

Sunshine Week: In Celebration of Open Government
March 12th, 2013 Posted by

The following post appears courtesy of Melanie Ann Pustay, Director of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice and Lisa Ellman, Chief Counselor for the Open Government Partnership and Senior Advisor to the Chief Technology Officer at the White House. It originally appeared on The White House blog.

As President Barack Obama has stated, “Openness will strengthen our democracy, and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” This week, we celebrate Sunshine Week — an appropriate time to discuss the importance of open government and freedom of information, and to take stock of how far we have come, and think about what more can be done.   

In the spirit of Sunshine Week, the White House will highlight one initiative a day which demonstrates the Obama Administration’s continued commitment to open and accessible government. Today, we will focus on progress made improving the administration of the FOIA. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In our democracy, FOIA, which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government. 

As President Obama declared in his landmark Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issued on his first full day in Office:  “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.”  The FOIA – which provides the public with a statutory right to request and receive information from their government – is a key way in which government transparency is realized. 

Over the past four years agencies have been working hard to improve their administration of the FOIA under guidance issued by Attorney General Holder. That guidance directed agencies to apply a presumption of openness in responding to requests and to make it a priority to respond promptly. Both the President and Attorney General stressed that it is also vital for agencies to make information available proactively, without the need to make a request, so that what is “known and done by their Government” is readily available to all. These directives are taking hold across the agencies and real improvements are being made. 

In Fiscal Year 2012, the government as a whole:

  • Processed more FOIA requests:  Agencies processed 665,924 total requests. This is a 5.5 percent increase over the total number of requests processed last fiscal year. 
  • Decreased the FOIA request backlog: The efforts of agencies to increase the numbers of requests processed has paid off as the government was able to reduce its backlog of pending requests by 14 percent from last year.  The current backlog marks a 45 percent reduction from the backlog that existed four years ago in 2008. 
  • Maintained a release rate above 92 percent for the fourth straight year: Of the 464,985 requests processed by agencies for disclosure, the government released records either in full or in part in response to 93.4 percent of these requests.  For half of those requests all the information was released, with nothing withheld.  This marks the fourth year in a row where the number of responses to FOIA requests providing a release of information either in full or in part exceeded 92 percent of the requests processed for disclosure. 
  • Improved average processing times:  Agencies improved the average processing times for all categories of requests. 
  • Disclosed more information proactively:  Agencies met public demand for information by posting a wide range of material on their websites, allowing the public to easily find information of interest without the need to make a FOIA request. 

All of the detailed data on agency FOIA compliance from Fiscal Year 2012 is compiled and displayed graphically on the Department of Justice’s government FOIA website FOIA.gov, providing a clear picture of government FOIA administration and progress during the last fiscal year.

These are more than just statistics. They represent the efforts of agencies across the government to answer the call to improve transparency. They demonstrate that agencies are responding to requests more quickly and releasing more information when they do. Agencies are reducing backlogs of pending requests and helping eliminate the need to even make requests by proactively providing information online.  The public is the beneficiary of this progress. While there is more work to be done, this past year demonstrates that agencies are answering the President’s and Attorney General’s call for greater transparency.

To learn more about the Office of Information Policy visit The FOIA Post - the blog of OIP. For more information about the Freedom of Information Act, visit FOIA.gov.

Digital Strategy at the Department of Justice
August 21st, 2012 Posted by

On May 23, 2012, the White House released the Federal Digital Strategy that outlined the use of “modern tools and technologies to seize the digital opportunity and fundamentally change how the Federal Government serves both its internal and external customers–building a 21st century platform to better serve the American People.” That means making sure information and services are easily accessible on the internet anytime, anywhere, and on any device. It means you will be able to find and share information that is important to you, your family and your community.

In the past few years, the Department of Justice has taken many steps to make the department’s information more available and accessible. We’ve added hundreds of data sets to data.gov, have begun using social media to bring information directly to you, and added more information to our website than ever before. But we know we can do more. As we begin to formulate our digital strategy, we want your input on which information and services you’d like us to prioritize and make more tech and mobile-friendly. There are two areas where we’d like your input:

  • What Justice Department information would you like to be able to access on mobile devices?
  • What Justice Department information, data, or applications would you like to us make available via APIs (Applied Programming Interface)?

Send us your thoughts on digital strategy at opengov@usdoj.gov.

We’ve come up with a few possibilities for each area. You can see the list on our Digital Strategy web page, justice.gov/digitalstrategy.

We welcome your feedback on the possible candidates for improvement, or other opportunities we may have overlooked. Your feedback, combined with other internal and external conversations, will guide our digital plan in the coming months and years.

Read more about how we are participating in the Digital Government Strategy and Open Government at our website.

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.

 

A Commitment to Language Access
May 8th, 2012 Posted by

Success of the Department’s mission depends on accurate communication with members of the public, regardless of their level of English proficiency.

The Justice Department released revised policies that will enhance the ability to communicate effectively with limited English proficient (LEP) individuals.  The release of the revised Departmental Language Access Plan is the latest in a series of steps taken to recommit the department to the language access principles of Executive Order 13166

Over the last sixteen months, the Civil Rights Division and the Justice Management Division led an internal Language Access Working Group focused on identifying and overcoming language barriers in department programs and activities.  The working group, consisting of representatives from each department component, was tasked by Attorney General Holder to create and implement language access plans for each component, including a department-wide plan. 

The Federal Coordination and Compliance Section of the Civil Rights Division, which is charged with government-wide enforcement of Executive Order 13166, assisted each component with assessing its ability to provide meaningful access to LEP individuals and drafted policies and plans to enhance their ability to communicate effectively with LEP individuals.  In fact, thirty-one department agencies have created language access plans or policy statements.

Many of these language access plans and documents will be posted online in the coming weeks.

Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division noted the department’s progress:

“The department’s language access plan is a big step towards ensuring equal access to all individuals. We welcome feedback and will continue to engage the LEP community and other stakeholders to help ensure that the policies are implemented in a manner consistent with department principles.”

Lee Lofthus, the Assistant Attorney General for Administration also commented on the language access plans:

 “I am pleased with the progress we’ve made in our ability to work more effectively with the LEP community. We will continue to look for efficient and effective ways to enhance our efforts in this important area.”

Feedback will inform the working group and individual components as they establish protocols and procedures to implement the department plans. Please submit your comments to DOJLAWG@usdoj.gov .

The department will continue to support cost-saving or cost-sharing initiatives aimed at maximizing Department resources.  We believe that the key to overcoming language barriers is finding practical and cost-effective systems to deliver high-quality language assistance services.

For more information, or to view the department’s language access plans, visit: http://www.justice.gov/open/language-access.html

 
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