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Successes in FOIA Administration: Part III – Increasing Proactive Disclosures
April 9th, 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). 

Successes in FOIA Administration: Part II – Effective Systems for Responding to Requests
April 4th, 2014 Posted by

Over the last five years, agency Chief 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 some of the successes in these five key areas as reported by agencies in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.   

Ensuring Agencies Have Effective Systems for Responding To Requests

As a part of this year’s guidelines for agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies were asked to provide information on the steps “taken to ensure that [the] management of [the agency’s] FOIA program is effective and efficient.”  In their 2014 reports, agencies provided details on various efforts related to personnel, processing procedures and requester services.

A key component of an agency having an effective system for responding to requests is the quality of its FOIA professionals who are on the frontlines of processing the increasing numbers of requests that are received each year.  Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the importance of the work performed by agency FOIA professionals. In recognition of their important role, and in an effort to professionalize the government’s FOIA and Privacy Act workforce, on March 9, 2012, the Office of Personnel Management announced the creation of a new job category specifically for FOIA and Privacy Act professionals called the Government Information Series.  In their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, many agencies reported that they had converted the majority, if not all, of their eligible FOIA staff to the new job series including the Departments of Justice, Labor, and Interior, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Agencies that had not yet converted all of their eligible FOIA personnel to the new job series provided plans in their report for doing so in the upcoming year. 

For the 2014 reports, agencies were also asked to report on if they were able to adjudicate requests for expedited processing in an average of ten calendar days or less during Fiscal Year 2013. In response, several agencies reported that they did not receive any requests for expedited processing, but of the agencies that did adjudicate such requests, fifty-one including thirteen of the fifteen cabinet departments reported that they were able to do so within an average of ten calendar days or less.  Notably, the three agencies that adjudicated the most requests for expedited processing during Fiscal Year 2013, the Departments of Homeland Security (1,480), Justice (1,017), and Defense (1,014), all reported an average of five days or less.  For those agencies that did not maintain an average of ten days or less, many outlined aggressive plans in their reports for improvement during Fiscal Year 2014.

In line with OIP’s previously released guidance on procedures for processing consultations and referrals, many agencies highlighted additional steps they have taken to make the handling of such items more efficient and effective.  A number of agencies reported taking affirmative steps to create efficiencies by entering into agreements with other agencies or agency components on how to process records that are a common source of consultations or referrals.  For example, at the Department of Justice, the Executive Office for Immigration Review continued to work under a longstanding agreement with the Department of Homeland Security on the processing of immigration records, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reached an agreement within the Intelligence Community on the processing of certain information.  Other agencies reported employing shared document environments to allow for more efficient means of collaborating on material that required consultation.  Notably, at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, ninety-one of the ninety-nine agencies subject to the FOIA reported having less than ten consultations pending at their agency, with seventy-four reporting that they had none pending.

This year’s reports also detailed over-arching steps agencies have undertaken to ensure that their FOIA systems operate efficiently and effectively, including:

  • The General Services Administration consolidating and centralizing its FOIA program during the reporting period, thereby creating a single point of intake for all agency FOIA requests.  As a result of this restructuring, the agnecy expects to have increased accountability and quality control in its administration of the FOIA, as well as improved communication with FOIA requesters.
  • The Department of the Treasury implemented the next phase of its goFOIA electronic system, which has improved its reporting abilities, allowing agency leadership to view more accurate and detailed weekly and monthly FOIA reports that they can now use to more accurately gauge FOIA performance throughout the year.
  • Like a number of other agencies, the FOIA office at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began conducting a case-by-case review of its FOIA administration to determine any trends contributing toward delays and to identify any areas where efficiencies could help the agency reduce its request backlog.

As a part of their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies also overwhelmingly noted that they communicate with requesters through electronic means whenever possible and that they are informing the public of the mediation services offered by the Office of Government Information Services in their administrative appeal responses. 

These are just some examples of the concrete steps agencies have taken to ensure that they have an effective and efficient system in place for responding to FOIA requests.  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 the previous post in this series on FOIA Post (Part I).

Successes in FOIA Administration: Part I – Applying the Presumption of Openness
March 20th, 2014 Posted by

This year marks the fifth anniversary of Attorney General Holder’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Guidelines, which highlighted the importance of the FOIA as a reflection of “our nation’s fundamental commitment to open government.”  In his Guidelines, the Attorney General directed agency Chief FOIA Officers to annually review “all aspects of their agencies’ FOIA administration” and to report each year to the Department of Justice on the steps taken to “improve FOIA operations and facilitate information disclosure.” 

Over the past five years, these Chief FOIA Officer Reports have illustrated agencies’ efforts to improve FOIA administration in the five key areas addressed by the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines:  applying the presumption of openness; ensuring that there are effective systems in place for responding to requests; increasing proactive disclosures; increasing the utilization of technology; and improving timeliness and reducing backlogs.  As we celebrate Sunshine Week 2014, OIP will be highlighting examples of successes from each of these five areas as reported in agencies’ 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports

Applying the Presumption of Openness  

Agencies described a wide range of efforts in this year’s reports to ensure the proper application of the presumption of openness called for by the President and the Attorney General, including providing substantive FOIA training to agency FOIA professionals, engaging in outreach the public, and making discretionary releases of information. 

A proper understanding of the FOIA and the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines is the first step towards applying the presumption of openness and a number of agencies made significant efforts this past year to provide substantive FOIA training to agency personnel.  For example:

  • At the Department of Justice, OIP continued to expand on its robust training program in an effort to provide quality FOIA training to FOIA professionals both within the Department and across all agencies.  During this past year, OIP trained thousands of FOIA professionals on a wide range of issues.   In an effort to provide important FOIA training to all federal employees, this Summer OIP will be releasing a suite of e-Learning training modules designed for every level of agency employee.
  • The Office of Information Services at the Department of Labor hosted the agency’s Fifth Annual FOIA Training Conference.  The three and a half day event was provided via webcast and made available to 400 agency staff members nationwide.  Materials from the training session and videos of each presentation were also made available to agency personnel for future use and self-paced learning opportunities.
  • The Department of Defense increased the use of the interactive virtual environment Defense Connect Online to provide FOIA training to agency professionals worldwide.  Four training sessions were conducted for agency FOIA professionals, with each session recorded and made available on-demand for any member of the agency’s FOIA community.  Additionally agency FOIA leadership held numerous FOIA chats using the virtual tool, allowing for the quick dissemination of information regarding current events as well as offering agency professionals the ability ask and have questions answered by their leadership.

Agencies also described in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports the different ways they are engaging with civil society and the requester community to improve the customer experience and facilitate greater access to records.  For example:

  •  The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service at the Department of Homeland Security hosted more than 30 members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association for a tour of the agency’s National Records Center.  The agency also provided the attendees with a briefing regarding records operations within the agency and other Department of Homeland Security Offices, and an overview of the agency’s FOIA program. 
  • The Archivist of the United States and the General Counsel of the National Archives and Records Administration, who also serves as the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer, reported having regular meetings with the agency’s requester community to discuss issues related to records access, including access through the FOIA.

This year’s Chief FOIA Officer Reports once again detailed agency efforts to make discretionary releases of information whenever possible.  In 2010, OIP identified a correlation between agencies that have a process or system in place to review materials for discretionary release and the ability of agencies to make such releases.  In this year’s reports the majority of agencies reported having such a system or process in place, with over half of agencies reporting making such a release during the reporting period.  These agencies found opportunities to make discretionary releases of information that otherwise would have been exempt under Exemptions 2, 5, 7D, 7E, and 8. 

These are just a few of the examples of the many successes agencies reported in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to apply the presumption of openness.  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 continued efforts to improve both transparency and understanding of the FOIA.

FOIA IT Working Group Holds Sunshine Week Meeting
March 11th, 2014 Posted by

Federal agencies continue to explore different opportunities for leveraging technological tools in their administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to create more effective systems for responding to requests.  During Sunshine Week 2014, OIP will host a meeting of the FOIA IT Working Group to continue discussions on how the application of digital tools can help agencies achieve efficiencies in their administration of the FOIA.

The FOIA IT Working Group acts as a forum for agency FOIA and technology professionals to discuss areas that could benefit from the application of digital tools or to highlight best practices in the use of technology.  As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the issuance of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, this Sunshine Week meeting will examine the various successes and benefits that agencies have been able to achieve in their FOIA programs over the last five years through the use of technology.  Additionally, during the meeting we will discuss areas of FOIA administration not yet addressed by the Working Group that could benefit from the application of advanced technological tools.

The details for the meeting, which is open all agency FOIA professionals, interested agency technology specialists, and members of the public are:

FOIA IT Working Group Meeting
Examining the Road Forward after Five Years of Work
Department of Justice – Office of Information Policy
1425 New York Ave. NW – Suite 11050
March 20, 2014, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

Registration is required to attend and you will need a picture ID to enter the building for this meeting.

Over the last five years, agencies have improved proactive disclosures, designed new interactive FOIA websites, and identified the benefits of employing advanced digital tools to search and process records.  These strides in using technology to improve some of the key areas of FOIA administration have laid the foundation for future efforts in employing such tools to create further efficiencies.   Through the use of technology, agencies continue to affirm their commitment to creating and sustaining effective FOIA operations.

If you are interested in attending this event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov, with the subject “FOIA IT Working Group Sunshine Week Meeting.”  If you have any questions regarding this meeting, please contact OIP at (202) 514-FOIA (3642).

As Sunshine Week 2014 approaches, be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for announcements and information about all of OIP’s planned activities for the week.  Don’t forget to join us for the Justice Department’s Sunshine Week kickoff celebration as well on Monday, March 17th.

Kickoff Sunshine Week 2014 with the Department of Justice
February 27th, 2014 Posted by

Update: Due to government office closures in the D.C. area as a result of inclement weather we are not able to hold our Sunshine Week event today. Please stay tuned to FOIA Post for additional announcements and information for Sunshine Week 2014.

The Department of Justice is pleased to invite both agency personnel and members of the public to celebrate with us as we kickoff Sunshine Week 2014.  This year also marks the fifth anniversary of Attorney General Holder’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Guidelines, which highlighted the importance of the FOIA as a reflection of “our nation’s fundamental commitment to open government.”  Through his Guidelines, which were issued during Sunshine Week 2009, the Attorney General called on all government personnel to understand that the responsibility of an effective FOIA administration “belongs to all of us.”  The Attorney General directed agencies to administer the FOIA with a presumption of openness, to ensure that they have effective systems in place to respond to requests, to work promptly and proactively to provide information to the public and to utilize technology to make information known to the public.

Associate Attorney General Tony West will lead our celebration this year and provide the keynote address commemorating the fifth anniversary of the FOIA Guidelines.  The event will highlight the many significant improvements agencies have made in their FOIA administration over the past five years. Representatives from a cross-section of federal agencies will also share their particular experiences and accomplishments over the years in improving their administration of the FOIA through the implementation of the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines.  

The details for the event, which is open to all agency personnel and members of the public, are:

Department of Justice Sunshine Week 2014 Celebration
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution Ave., NW – Great Hall
March 17, 2014, 10:00am – 12 noon 

You will need a picture ID to enter the building for this event.

We hope that you can join us for this year’s celebration.  If you are interested in attending this event, please register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov, with the subject line “Sunshine Week 2014 Celebration.”  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact our office at (202) 514-FOIA (3642).

 

New Agency Best Practices Workshop Series for Improving FOIA Administration
January 24th, 2014 Posted by

As part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan’s commitment to modernizing FOIA and improving internal agency FOIA processes, we will be holding a series of agency Best Practices workshops beginning this Spring.  Each workshop will focus on a specific topic and will include a panel of agency representatives sharing their success stories and strategies.  Through these workshops agencies can learn from one another and leverage the successes of other agencies in their own organization for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government. 

As the Attorney General emphasized in his FOIA Guidelines, the “responsibility for effective FOIA administration belongs to all of us . . . [and] [w]e all must do our part to ensure open government.”  Embracing the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines, over the past few years many agencies have analyzed their existing FOIA practices and found ways to improve different areas of their FOIA administration such as reducing backlogs, improving processing times, increasing proactive disclosures, using technology, and improving customer service. 

This new Best Practices Workshop series is designed to share the lessons learned across agencies in improving their FOIA administration, many of which are described each year in agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  Each workshop will focus on a specific FOIA topic, such as reducing backlogs, and will highlight a panel of agencies that have had success in that area.  Tips and best practices discussed during these workshops, as well as feedback from workshop participants will then be published online so that all agencies can use them as a resource for improvement.

Specific details regarding these workshops, including time, location and topic will be announced prior to each session here on FOIA Post and through OIP’s Twitter account, @FOIAPost.  As we work to establish this new series of workshops, we invite you to suggest discussion topics.  Also please let us know if you would like to participate as an agency representative on a panel or would like to identify any other agencies that have had successes in any area of FOIA administration that should be included on a panel.  Please e-mail your suggestions to us at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov using the subject line “Agency Best Practices Workshop Suggestion.”  

 
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