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OIP Issues New Annual FOIA Report Handbook and Hosts Upcoming Refresher Training
September 26th, 2013 Posted by

Update: Due to the government shutdown, the October 7th Annual FOIA Report and Chief FOIA Officer Report refresher training has been rescheduled for Thursday, October 24th.  The updated details for this training are located below.  We apologize for the inconvenience.

As Fiscal Year 2013 draws to an end, agencies will soon begin working on preparing their Annual Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Reports.  Each year, agencies are required by law to submit to the Attorney General a report containing a range of statistics and details regarding their administration of the FOIA.  In an effort to assist agencies, today OIP issued a comprehensive handbook that includes all of the legal, procedural, and technical requirements concerning agency Annual FOIA Reports.

In 2008 the Department of Justice, in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), issued guidance to agencies on the submission of these reports.  The Department has since continued to provide additional guidance to agencies and has also developed an Annual FOIA Report tool to assist in producing these reports in a uniform open format.  The new handbook updates and centralizes all of this guidance into one resource designed for both agency professionals processing FOIA requests and appeals, and those professionals responsible for producing the Annual FOIA Report after the end of each fiscal year.

Recognizing the key role agency FOIA professionals play in properly tracking the information that goes into the Annual FOIA Report, an entire chapter of the Handbook is devoted to providing all of the guidance those professionals need as they process requests and appeals throughout the year.   Additionally, the Handbook contains detailed guidance for those agency professionals responsible for preparing the Annual FOIA Report itself, including step-by-step instructions on using the DOJ Annual FOIA Report Tool, submitting the report to OIP for review and clearance, and finally posting the report to their agency’s website. 

Along with issuing this new handbook, the Department is also releasing an enhanced version of the Annual FOIA Report Tool.  First released in 2010, the Annual FOIA Report Tool assists agencies by providing built-in data validation checks and allowing them to produce their Annual FOIA Report in a uniform open format (NIEM-XML).  In addition to these features, the new Tool will now also assist agencies in preparing the human-readable version of their report by producing all of the required data charts.  Using the same source of data to produce both versions of the Annual FOIA Report, the new Tool will ensure better accuracy between the two versions, while at the same time eliminating the need for agencies to work on two entirely separate reports every year.    

As announced last week, OIP will host a refresher training seminar for all agency personnel on the preparation of both the Fiscal Year 2013 Annual FOIA Report and 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Report.  The details for the training are:

Refresher Training for FY 2013 Annual FOIA Reports and 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th
and Constitution Ave., NW – Great Hall
October 24, 2013, 10:00am – 12:30pm

Training is open to agency Chief FOIA Officers, Principal FOIA Contacts, and any other agency personnel who prepare Annual FOIA Reports and/or Chief FOIA Officer Reports (including appropriate IT staff)

If you are interested in attending this refresher training seminar, please e-mail your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “Annual Report and Chief FOIA Officer Report Refresher Training.”  Please note that registration is required to attend and that you will need a picture ID to enter the building.  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

You can access the new Department of Justice Annual FOIA Report Handbook here, or through OIP’s Reports page.

OIP Releases Guidelines for 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
September 19th, 2013 Posted by

Update: Due to the government shutdown at the beginning of the fiscal year and various weather related closures affecting Washington based government offices over the last several months, OIP is extending the deadline for agencies to post the final version of their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to March 17, 2014, the first day of Sunshine Week.

As a part of his FOIA Guidelines, Attorney General Holder directed agency Chief FOIA Officers to 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 at their agencies.”  The Attorney General directed OIP to provide specific guidance on the content and timing of these reports, which OIP has done every year.  Today, our office issues the guidelines for agencies’ 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports

Each year, the guidelines issued by OIP have required agencies to examine five key areas of FOIA administration addressed in the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines.  These areas include:  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.  The 2014 Guidelines build off of the efforts and initiatives reported in previous years to address the more advanced steps taken by agencies in their administration of the FOIA and to also focus on certain areas where further improvements are needed.  Some new additions to the Guidelines include:

  • Having agencies provide plans for addressing certain goals – Where agencies note in their reports that certain goals or objectives were not fully realized during the reporting year, this year’s Guidelines ask that Chief FOIA Officers provide details about how their agency will work towards achieving those goals moving forward.
  • Reporting on the process of converting agency FOIA professionals to Government Information Specialists – Nearly two years ago the Office of Personnel Management announced a new job series to address the important work performed by FOIA and Privacy Act professionals.  Agencies will report on their efforts to convert such staff to the new Government Information Specialist job series.
  • Describing the process for identifying proactive disclosures and making this material more useful to the public – Expanded from previous years, the 2014 Guidelines ask agencies for detailed information on how they identify records that can be proactively disclosed, how they are making such records more useful to the public (such as by releasing material in an open format), and how they are informing the public of the availability of this information.

The 2014 Guidelines also require agencies to report on their efforts in posting their quarterly FOIA reports for Fiscal Year 2013, their ability to adjudicate requests for expedition within ten calendar days or less, and more detailed questions about their efforts to both hold FOIA training and send their FOIA professionals to training opportunities offered around the government.  As with prior years, agencies are again asked to highlight at least one success story from the reporting year that is emblematic of their efforts to improve their FOIA administration and implement the Attorney General’s Guidelines.

OIP will once again use the information in these reports to prepare an assessment of agency progress in implementing the Attorney General’s Guidelines.  For the 2014 assessment, OIP will be expanding its stoplight scoring system to provide greater detail on the level of success achieved by agencies during the reporting year.

Federal Departments must submit their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports to OIP for review no later than January 17, 2014, with all other agency reports due by February 3, 2014.  Once cleared by OIP, all agencies must post the final version of their reports to their websites by March 17, 2014.  Additional details on this review and submission process are available in the Guidelines.

OIP will host a refresher training seminar on the preparation of both the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Report and the Fiscal Year 2013 Annual FOIA Report on October 7, 2013.  The details for that training are:

Refresher Training for FY 2013 Annual FOIA Reports and 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports
Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building
10th and Constitution Ave., NW – Great Hall
October 24, 2013, 10:00am – 12:30pm

Training is open to agency Chief FOIA Officers, Principal FOIA Contacts, and any other agency personnel who prepare Annual FOIA Reports and/or Chief FOIA Officer Reports (including appropriate IT staff)

If you are interested in attending this refresher training seminar, please e-mail your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “Annual Report and Chief FOIA Officer Report Refresher Training.”  Please note that registration is required to attend and that you will need a picture ID to enter the building.  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Assessing Agency Efforts in Implementing the FOIA Guidelines
September 17th, 2013 Posted by

With the issuance of his 2009 FOIA Guidelines, Attorney General Holder 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.”  For the last four years, these Chief FOIA Officer Reports have provided detailed descriptions of the efforts undertaken to improve the administration of the FOIA at each agency.  OIP has once again prepared a summary and assessment of the progress made by agencies in implementing the FOIA Guidelines based on a review of each agency’s 2013 Chief FOIA Officer Report.

First introduced in 2010 after the review of agencies’ first Chief FOIA Officer Reports, OIP’s annual summary contains a description of agency activities, highlights notable examples of progress, and uses data from agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports as well as the most recent Annual FOIA Reports to describe a range of FOIA activity from the preceding year.  Starting with 2011 OIP began assessing agency progress in key milestones tied to the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines, by assigning a green, yellow, or red score on multiple milestones.  The assessment was first done for the fifteen Federal Departments and then expanded the past two years to include all agencies subject to the FOIA.  Standard benchmarks such as reduction in backlogs and closing of the ten oldest requests have been evaluated each year by OIP and are joined by new metrics as agency progress in certain areas is taken into account. 

As with last year’s assessment, for 2013 OIP has included a guidance to assist agencies in making further improvements in the years ahead.  The 2013 assessment provides a “visual snapshot” of agency efforts in five key areas of FOIA administration, specifically:

  • applying the presumption of openness,
  • effectively responding to requests,
  • making information available proactively,
  • utilizing technology, and
  • reducing backlogs and improving timeliness. 

A new feature included in this year’s assessment is the addition of the total number of agencies that received each grade for each metric.  This information can be found on the last page of the assessment.  Additionally, this year’s assessment has also been released in an open, machine readable (CSV) format

OIP’s assessment “is designed to provide a visual snapshot of several key areas of agency FOIA administration, and is meant to be read in conjunction with [agency] Chief FOIA Officer Reports.”  This year, our review found that:

“During these times of lean resources, and as the government overall continues to face ever-increasing numbers of incoming FOIA requests, agencies have persevered and  identified efficiencies that have enabled them to process more requests, reduce response times, and lower backlogs of pending requests.  Moreover, this has all been accomplished while agencies continued to release records in full or in part in response to over 92% of requests processed for disclosure.  To be sure, there are variations in the level of success achieved by the agencies and there is still more work that can be done. . . .This assessment is intended to guide agencies in identifying those areas where further work is needed.”

Through the continued assessment of agencies on a wide variety of factors that contribute to the improvement of transparency and information disclosure, the public and agencies themselves can easily see where progress has been achieved, and where work remains, in agency efforts to improve FOIA administration.

You can read the 2013 Chief FOIA Officer Report Summary and Assessment, along with summaries and assessments from previous years, success stories from the Chief FOIA Officer Reports, and the Reports themselves on our Reports page.

New Edition of DOJ Guide to the FOIA Continues its Roll Out
September 9th, 2013 Posted by

On the first day of Sunshine Week 2013, OIP announced the posting of the first chapter of the new edition of the Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act.  Serving as a comprehensive legal treatise on the FOIA, each chapter contains a detailed analysis of the key judicial opinions issued on the FOIA alongside relevant guidance from OIP.  The Guide is a unique FOIA resource relied on by both agency personnel and the public for understanding the legal framework for the administration of the FOIA.

A distinct feature of the new edition of the Guide is the transition from a paper publication to an online resource.  This new process has allowed OIP to post new chapters online on a rolling basis as they are finalized instead, of waiting for the entire publication to be completed.  This ongoing publication process has allowed OIP to post the following chapters since March:

As noted in the Department’s Open Government Plan version 2.0, another unique feature of publishing the Guide as an online resource is the ability to make updates to each chapter as significant new developments occur.  Last week, OIP’s subject matter experts updated the Procedural Requirements chapter of the Guide with new information from a FOIA court case decided only a few weeks ago.  By having the Guide exist as a “living document,” OIP can continue to update chapters on a rolling basis instead of waiting to complete a new edition every few years.

We are continuing our work on the remaining chapters of the Guide and will post them on our website as they become available.  Until all chapters of the new edition are posted, the 2009 edition of the Guide will remain available on OIP’s website before moving to the archive section of our site.  Be sure to follow FOIA Post and OIP’s Twitter account, @FOIAPost, for announcements on when new chapters have been posted.

FOIA Training with Video Conferencing Next Week
August 22nd, 2013 Posted by

Next week, the Office of Information Policy (OIP) will host another FOIA training seminar available for federal employees through the use of video conferencing.  The training will focus on an overview of the FOIA, addressing Presdient Obama’s FOIA Memorandum, Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines, procedural considerations, and the FOIA’s exemptions.

OIP continually looks for ways to expand its training program and the utilization of video conferencing has proven to be a powerful tool for providing important FOIA training to a wider audience of federal employees, particularly for those who work outside of the Washington, D.C. area.  Virtual meeting tools such as video conferencing provide an ideal way to train individuals across the government, while reducing or eliminating travel costs and arrangements.

The details for the training are:

An Overview of the FOIA – Video Conference
August 28, 2013
1:00 – 3:00pm

Training is open to all federal employees, with priority for employees outside the Washington, D.C. area.

If you are interested in participating in the video conference, you may register by e-mailing your name, phone number, and duty station to OIP’s Training Officer at DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “August Video Conferencing Training.”  If you have any questions regarding this event, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

UPDATE: Due to scheduling issues, this video conference training has been cancelled.  It will be rescheduled for a later date, which will be announced here on FOIA Post.  We apologize for the inconvenience.

Discussions from the FOIA IT Working Group: Improving Agency FOIA Websites
August 12th, 2013 Posted by

The FOIA IT Working Group continues to serve as a collaborative forum for agencies to discuss the different areas of FOIA administration that could benefit from the greater use of technology.  One area where agencies have begun implementing innovative uses of technology is through the revamping and launching of new agency FOIA websites.  While agencies’ efforts in this area vary, ninety-six of the ninety-nine agencies subject to the FOIA reported in their 2013 Chief FOIA Officer Reports that they have taken steps to make their websites more useful to the public. 

At last week’s meeting of the FOIA IT Working Group, representatives from the Department of State provided a presentation on their recently redesigned FOIA website, during which they discussed all of the efforts that went into launching the site and the new features it provides both the public and agency personnel.  The State Department representatives noted that from the very beginning their efforts were focused on the idea that agency FOIA websites are one of the first places where the public is introduced to the FOIA.  From the first page, the State Department’s new FOIA website provides a wealth of information about how the FOIA works, the types of records generated and maintained across the agency, frequently asked questions, and several other useful FOIA resources.

As a part of their demonstration, the Department of State highlighted a number of significant improvements that were made to the website, including:

  • Improved Document Searches:  The Department of State’s new virtual FOIA Library allows the public to search across all posted documents using various search terms, date ranges, and the FOIA case number assigned to the request.  The site also includes tips for searching across the over 80,000 documents available online, as well as links to document collections on popular topics. 
  • Updated Online Request Resources:  The Department of State completely overhauled the interface the public uses when making a FOIA request online.  The new website provides a step-by-step online form that is designed to ensure that requesters provide sufficient detail when making their requests to avoid delays caused by the need for further clarification.   Additionally, the new website provides checklists of information that is required when making certain types of requests such as for personal or immigration visa records, as well as information on FOIA fees, standards for expedited processing, and other procedural aspects of the FOIA specific to the Department of State.

As the agencies in attendance discussed, the availability of resources will necessarily impact each agency’s assessment of its website and what improvements or new features can be added.  However, there are many improvements that were discussed that can be implemented without the need for significant resources.  For example, simple improvements such as providing more information on FOIA websites about the types of records an agency maintains and how long those records are retained by the agency can be very helpful to requesters.  Agencies can also link to helpful FOIA resources provided by other agencies such as the Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act and FOIA.gov.     

As agencies continue to explore new ways to harness technology in their administration of the FOIA, the FOIA IT Working Group will continue to meet in order share the latest developments across the government.  Details on the next meeting will be announced here on FOIA Post and on Twitter at @FOIAPost as they are finalized.

 
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