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Successes in FOIA Administration: Part III – Increasing Proactive Disclosures
April 9, 2014 Posted by

Over the last five years, agency Chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Officer Reports have provided detailed descriptions of agency efforts to improve FOIA administration in five key areas addressed by Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines.  As a part of a series which started during Sunshine Week 2014, OIP continues to highlight in a series of posts some of the successes in these five key areas as reported by agencies in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.

Increasing Proactive Disclosures

Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the need for agencies to work proactively to post information online without waiting for individual requests to be received.  As a part of the guidelines for the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, OIP asked agencies to detail the steps “taken to both increase the amount of material that is available on [their] website[s]” as well as “the usability of such information.”  In their reports for this year, agencies provided numerous details on the systems they have in place for identifying records for proactive disclosures, how they are making posted material more useful to the public, and how they are notifying the public of newly posted material. 

In order to answer the Attorney General’s call for agencies to “readily and systematically post information online” it is important that each agency have a process in place to identify records for proactive disclosures.  Utilizing different strategies tailored to serve the community of individuals who most frequent their websites, many agencies described the distinct processes they have put in place to identify records of public interest for proactive disclosures.  For example, FOIA professionals at the General Services Administration use their networking system to work with key agency offices to anticipate records of public interest that could be proactively disclosed online.  In addition to systematically reviewing records requested under the FOIA for posting online, the Office of Personnel Management routinely sends notices to program offices reminding them of the need to proactively disclose data and records.  At the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services the FOIA Office works closely with program managers to identify and proactively post records for which there might be a high public interest. 

Using various methods to identify proactive disclosures, agencies also provided a wealth of examples of new or regularly updated information posted on their websites, including:

  • The Department of Homeland Security has proactively posted over 16,000 pages of records since March 2013, including daily schedules of senior leaders and procurement records.
  • With more frequency and in greater volume, components of the Department of Labor posted FOIA logs, annual reports, policy guidance, historical reports, mission reports, government purchase card holder lists, strategic plans, contracts information and listings, lists of accessioned documents, press releases, testimonies and speeches, workplace accident reports, investigations, audit reports, proposals and abstracts for grant applications, reports to Congress, Equal Employment Opportunity complaint data, veterans information and links on worker healthy living.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has continued to expand its Consumer Complaint Database, launched in June 2012 to include various types of complaints and data for over 176,000 complaints. 
  • The Department of Energy’s website for agency data provides a central location for information about data released by the agency, including an agency-wide data index that provides metadata and URLs to publicly available datasets.

In addition to identifying and posting new material, agencies also detailed how they are taking steps to make posted material more useful to the public.  For example:

  • The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management posted an interactive map displaying and describing its renewable energy-related activities in the United States. Similarly, Amtrak’s train locator map, an interactive tool created in partnership with Google, tracks any of the 300 daily trains operated by Amtrak and provides consumers with more accurate predicted arrival times.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development continues to make agency data available in standard, nonproprietary, and machine-readable formats, and solicits public feedback on the information that the agency makes available.  Users can interact with agency data, see how other members of the public are using the data, and leave questions or comments about the data for the agency to respond.
  • At the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Safety Inspection Service uses an interactive resource called “Ask Karen” to provide information to consumers about preventing foodborne illness, safe food handling and storage, and safe preparation of meat, poultry and egg products.

Finally, agencies described in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports steps they are taking to publicize or highlight important proactive disclosures in order to inform the public of their availability, including using social media.   Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr are just some of the social media outlets used by agencies over the past year to highlight new postings. 

These are just a few of the examples of the successes achieved by agencies in the past year in ensuring that they have taken steps to increase proactive disclosures.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for even more examples. 

Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information on the Department’s continuing efforts to improve both transparency and understanding of the FOIA.

You can read previous posts in this series on FOIA Post (Part I, Part II). 

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