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Discussing Proactive Disclosures and Online Information
July 18, 2014 Posted by
OIP's Best Practices Panel

OIP’s Best Practices Panel (from left to right): Vanessa Brinkmann (OIP), Melanie Ann Pustay (OIP), Karen Finnegan (Dept. of State), Martin Michalosky (CFPB), Erie Meyer (OSTP), and Mark Graff (NRC)

OIP’s ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops continued yesterday with a panel discussing proactive disclosures and how agencies can make information posted online more useful to interested parties.  The workshop series, designed as a part of the Administration’s efforts to modernize and improve FOIA administration, looks to showcase successes achieved by agencies across the government on a wide range of FOIA issues and to share successful strategies so that agencies can learn from one another.

The systematic and regular posting of information online by federal agencies in advance of receiving a FOIA request is an important aspect of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, and yesterday’s panel highlighted the creative and innovative ways that agencies are working to not only increase the amount of material made available online, but also the steps they are making to make such material more useful.  Serving on today’s panel were Erie Meyer from the Office of Science & Technology Policy, Vanessa Brinkmann from OIP, Karen Finnegan from the Department of State, Mark Graff from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Martin Michalosky from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

Each of the speakers detailed the steps and best practices they had utilized in order to carry out the important task of making meaningful and useful proactive disclosures, including:

  • Engaging with programmatic offices – By actively engaging with record creators at an agency, FOIA offices can identify potential proactive disclosures with more ease, and can work with those offices to make the posting of the material more efficient.
  • Making online information usable, not just accessible – Agencies continue to make strides in making online information more usable as they are also making more information available including posting in open formats, creating topical websites, or employing special search engines.
  • Utilizing available expertise outside of the FOIA office – Just as engaging with programmatic offices can help FOIA professionals locate potential proactive disclosures, leveraging available expertise from inside an agency (such as a Chief Information Officer) or from across the government (such Project Open Data or the 18F innovation lab) can help agencies unlock proactive disclosures that may be waiting at their agency.
  • Collaborating with stakeholders outside of agencies – Working with the public and interested agency stakeholders can allow FOIA offices to focus their efforts on particular types of proactive disclosures or identify useful formats that agencies can post information in.

Many of today’s speakers noted how their proactive disclosure processes benefited from the use of new technologies to post information in new ways in order to better serve their requester community and agency stakeholders.  A common theme from each member of the panel was how the implementation of an effective proactive disclosure process has helped create efficiencies in their agency’s FOIA operations overall.  Based on yesterday’s discussion and the importance of proactive disclosures to the FOIA process, OIP will continue to explore opportunities for specialized training in this area including a session on the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act when agencies post information online.

The goal of this series is to provide agency personnel with the opportunity to hear from individuals who have faced similar challenges in order to leverage successes achieved by others for their own administration of the FOIA.  As seen today, opportunities exist to utilize experiences from around the government in order to improve proactive disclosure processes and make posted information more useful to the public.

The Best Practices Workshop series continues October 15, where a panel from the open government and FOIA requester communities will highlight agency best practices they have experienced while working through the FOIA process.  Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information about these events and about other training opportunities offered by OIP.  

Summary of Fiscal Year 2013 Annual FOIA Reports
July 18, 2014 Posted by

Each year, federal departments and agencies are required by law to submit a report to the Attorney General detailing various statistics regarding their agency’s FOIA activities, such as the numbers of requests processed and received, and the time taken to process them.  These Annual FOIA Reports, ninety-nine in total for FY 2013, are compiled by OIP and posted on the Reports page of our site.  The data from the agency Annual FOIA Reports is also uploaded onto FOIA.gov, the Justice Department’s government-wide FOIA resource.

In order to provide agency personnel and the public with a comprehensive picture of the government’s FOIA activities during the fiscal year, OIP routinely creates a summary of the information contained within agency Annual FOIA Reports.  Today, we posted our summary of these reports for FY 2013 (PDF).  As in previous years, the summary looks at government-wide data for many key statistics in FOIA administration and highlights significant numbers reported by individual agencies.  Additionally, the summary identifies trends in FOIA processing by comparing the FY 2013 Annual FOIA Report data with data from prior fiscal years.

As described in this year’s summary, during FY 2013 the government overall showed good progress in a number of areas despite difficult challenges and an ever increasing demand of incoming FOIA requests.  During FY 2013, the government overall received a record high 704,394 requests, and in response to this high demand, agencies processed a record high 678,391 requests.  While this impressive effort was not enough to offset the increase of incoming requests for overall backlog reduction, many individual agencies were able to reduce their backlog of requests in FY 2013.  Further, seventy three of the ninety-nine agencies reported low backlogs of 100 requests or fewer, with twenty-nine of those agencies reporting no backlogs at all.  The government overall also continued to maintain a high release rate of over 91% and it improved its average processing times for simple track requests.

OIP’s Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for FY 2013 is available on our Reports page where it can be compared with previous summaries dating back to FY 2006.  The data collected in agency Annual FOIA Reports can also easily be viewed, compared, and analyzed on FOIA.gov.

July Best Practices Workshop Series Open to the Public
July 10, 2014 Posted by

As a part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan’s commitment to modernizing FOIA, OIP launched a new series of workshops focused on agency best practices in FOIA administration.  Next week OIP is hosting the second event in this Best Practices Workshop series on the topic of proactive disclosures and making posted information more useful for the public.  We are pleased to open this event to interested members of the public as well agency personnel.  

Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines encourage agencies to “readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request.”  While increasing their proactive disclosures, agencies are also finding new and creative ways of making the information they post online easier to find and more useful to the public.  At this event, a panel of representatives from the Office of Science & Technology Policy, OIP, the Department of State, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will share their success stories and strategies on improving their proactive disclosures. 

As agencies continue to make progress in this area, it is important that they interact with the public in order to learn their needs and better understand how they access government information online.  To further that exchange, OIP is opening this event in the Best Practices Workshop series to the public.

The details for next week’s event are:

FOIA Best Practices Workshop
Proactive Disclosures & Making Online Information More Useful
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution Ave. NW – Great Hall
July 17, 2014, 10:00am – noon

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

The first event in this series focused on how agencies can reduce backlogs of FOIA requests and improve timeliness, and the panel of agency representatives identified a number of common approaches that they had each taken to achieve success in this important area.  As this series continues, we hope that FOIA professionals continue to learn from one another and leverage the successes of others in their own organizations for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government.

If you are interested in attending next week’s 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 line “July Best Practices Workshop.”  As space for this meeting is limited, registration is required to attend.  If you have any questions regarding this event or the Best Practices series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Updated Guidance on Providing Estimated Dates of Completion
July 8, 2014 Posted by

Last month, agency FOIA professionals and representatives from the FOIA requester community gathered together at OIP for the most recent FOIA Requester Roundtable.  The topic of this meeting was how agencies provide estimated dates of completion to FOIA requesters. 

The roundtable focused on the statutory requirements of the FOIA to assign tracking numbers to requests and provide status information to requesters, including:

  • Subsection (a)(7)(A) – requiring agencies to assign an individualized tracking number to requests that will take longer than ten days to process, and
  • Subsection (a)(7)(B) – requiring agencies to establish a telephone line or Internet service that requesters can use to inquire about the status of their requests using the request’s assigned tracking number. 

After discussing the legal requirements of these provisions during the meeting, attendees shared a number of best practices for calculating an estimated date of completion, methods for providing this information to requesters, and the importance of good communication between agencies and the requester.

OIP has previously issued guidance to agencies on the FOIA’s requirements to assign tracking numbers and provide status information for requests and today, OIP is issuing an updated version of that guidance.  This guidance further clarifies agencies’ responsibilities under these statutory provisions, and can be found on the Guidance page of our website.

For further information about training and outreach opportunities from OIP, please visit our Training page.

Successes in FOIA Administration: Part V – Improving Timeliness & Reducing Backlogs
June 4, 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 part of a five-part 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

Improving Timeliness in Responding to Requests and Reducing Backlogs

Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the importance of improving timeliness in responding to requests.  In his FOIA Memorandum issued on his first full day in office, President Obama directed agencies to “act promptly” when responding to requests.  Attorney General Holder similarly emphasized in his FOIA Guidelines that “[t]imely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency . . . [and that] [l]ong delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand.”  For the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies were asked to provide detailed information on their average processing times for simple requests and their efforts to reduce backlogs and close their ten oldest requests, appeals, and consultations.  Those agencies that had a request backlog of over 1,000, and did not reduce that backlog, were also required to provide a plan for achieving backlog reduction in the year ahead.  Likewise, agencies that did not close their ten oldest requests, appeals, or consultations were required to describe their plans for closing those requests, appeals or consultations by the next fiscal year. 

Because of the strong correlation between the type of request that is made and the ability of the agency to respond to that request more quickly, in 2012, OIP established a milestone that addresses whether the agency overall responded to requests in its simple track within an average of twenty working days or less.  Agencies were once again required to report on this metric in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  Sixty-three agencies, including seven of the fifteen cabinet level agencies, reported that they were able to process their simple-track requests in Fiscal Year 2013 in an average of twenty-working days or less.  Twenty-six of those sixty-eight agencies did not utilize multi-track processing, however, their average processing time for all non-expedited requests was twenty-working days or less.

With regard to request backlogs, fifty-five agencies reported that they were either able to reduce the number of requests in their backlog at the end of Fiscal Year 2013 or they had no backlog to reduce.  Additionally, four agencies reported no change in their request backlog, and twelve agencies reported a slight increase of up to five backlogged requests.  Twenty-eight agencies experienced a backlog increase of more than five requests.  Notably, however, seventy-three agencies were able to maintain a small request backlog of 100 requests or less, with twenty-nine of these agencies reporting no backlog at all.

For administrative FOIA appeals, seventy-three agencies reported that they were either able to reduce the number of appeals in their backlog at the end of Fiscal Year 2013 or they had no backlog to reduce.  Three agencies had no change in their appeals backlog, and fifteen agencies reported a slight increase of up to five backlogged appeals.  While eight agencies reported a backlog increase of over five appeals, a total of eighty-two agencies maintained a backlog of twenty or less appeals.

As with previous years, agencies that experienced an increase in their request or appeal backlogs explained the causes that contributed to those increases in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Some of the common factors reported by agencies included an increase in the number of incoming requests, loss of FOIA staff, and an increase in the complexity of the requests or appeals received by the agency.   

A critical element of the government’s efforts to reduce backlogs and answer the President’s and Attorney General’s call to provide timely disclosures of information is closing the ten oldest pending requests, appeals, and consultations at each agency every year.  Sixty-eight agencies reported that they were either able to close all ten of their oldest requests from Fiscal Year 2012 by the end of Fiscal Year 2013, or they had no ten oldest to close.  With regard to appeals, eighty agencies were either able to close their ten oldest pending appeals or they had no ten oldest to close.  Finally, ninety-three agencies were able to close their ten oldest pending consultations or they continued to maintain no pending consultations at the end of the fiscal year. 

Agencies were also asked to report in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports on whether they have a system in place for providing requesters substantive interim responses when appropriate.  In the spirit of providing more timely disclosures of information, OIP issued guidance in 2010 to agencies encouraging the use of interim releases whenever a request involves a voluminous amount of material or a search in multiple locations is required.  The vast majority of agencies reported that they did have a process in place for making interim responses.  Additionally, each agency reported an estimate of the number of cases in their backlog for which and interim response was provided. 

This is just a snapshot of agencies’ efforts to improve timeliness and reduce backlogs.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for a more comprehensive view of agency progress in this area. 

As with previous years, this summer OIP will once again publish its assessment of agencies’ implementation of the President’s and Attorney General’s FOIA Memoranda based on agency Annual and Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  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, Part III, Part IV).  

Successes in FOIA Administration: Part IV – Greater Utilization of Technology
May 29, 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 GuidelinesAs 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

Steps Taken to Greater Utilize Technology

A key component of the President’s FOIA Memorandum is the call for agencies to “use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government.”  In response to this directive, agencies have utilized advanced technology to not only make more information available online and improve their websites, but also to assist in their overall administration of the FOIA.  Each year, OIP asks agencies to describe in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports the steps they have taken to greater utilize technology in their FOIA administration. 

As a part of the first Chief FOIA Officer Reports, submitted in 2010, agencies were surveyed to determine the extent to which they were using technology to receive, track, and process requests, and to prepare their Annual FOIA Reports.  As has been done for each section of the Chief FOIA Officer Report, every year OIP has refined the questions for this section as the use of technology in FOIA has matured.  For 2014, agencies were asked to report on whether they provide requesters the ability to track the status of their requests online, and if so, to provide details regarding the functionality of such online services.   Agencies were also asked to report on the extent to which they are using more advanced technologies to assist with the processing of requests.  Finally, agencies were asked whether there were any additional tools that would be helpful to achieving further efficiencies at their agency.

Over a quarter of the agencies reported offering requesters the ability to track the status of requests online, with decentralized agencies like the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Interior offering such services for all of their components.  The form and functionality of the online tracking provided by these agencies varies.  For example, a number of agencies reported providing tracking through online portals, while some other agencies explained that they regularly post updated request logs with status information on their websites.  In addition to providing online tracking, some agencies reported that they provide requesters estimated dates of completion through these services.  Of the agencies that do not currently provide online tracking, about half reported that they were taking steps to establish this capability.  For those agencies that do not plan to establish online tracking at this time, many reported that such services would not provide a substantial public benefit given the small number of requests they receive and their short processing times.

The use of technology to reduce the time and labor needed to process requests, such as technology that can sort and de-duplicate documents, provide shared platforms to facilitate consultations, or improve search capabilities, has great potential for improving agencies’ FOIA administration.  For 2014, many agencies once again reported that they are taking steps to utilize more advanced technology to assist with the processing of requests.  For example:

  • The Privacy Office and fifteen of the Department of Homeland Security‘s (DHS) components deployed a new web-based tracking application that includes a number of features for the agency’s FOIA professionals including new search capabilities and the ability to share documents across offices for consultations and referrals.  Additionally, DHS added a new de-duplication capability that allows FOIA staff to upload e-mail correspondence files and de-duplicate the correspondence based on a comparison process performed by the application.
  • The Department of State is updating its records archive, the State Archiving System, with new tools to assist its FOIA staff in conducting searches in response to FOIA requests.  The agency plans further improvements to this custom-built system, including the ability to search across document formats, streamlining the process of identifying duplicate messages, and adding a 25-year review enhancement for classified material.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of implementing an advanced document review module which utilizes logarithmic record analysis capabilities to de-duplicate voluminous record sets, which will reduce the processing time for large volume requests. 

A number of agencies reported that they could benefit from the types of tools described above that provide shared platforms for consultations and that would assist with the search, de-duplication, and review of large volumes of records.  As agencies continue to acquire such tools for use in their FOIA operations, they can expect to see greater efficiencies in their overall FOIA administration.  As the Chief FOIA Officer Reports continue to illustrate, agencies are eager to use more advanced technology to streamline their FOIA administration.

This is just a brief summary of agencies’ use of technology in FOIA as reported in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  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, Part III).

 
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