The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) in the National Archives drives improvements to the federal government’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process by serving as a neutral party to help resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and agencies, and also by reviewing and identifying strategies to improve agency FOIA compliance. By carrying out these dual missions, OGIS is uniquely situated to understand FOIA issues from the perspective of agencies and requesters and make recommendations to improve the FOIA process for all of the stakeholders As I blogged about last summer, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 further strengthened and solidified the office’s role as the FOIA Ombudsman.
Since October 1, 2016, OGIS has been contacted by customers for assistance with FOIA requests more than 2,500 times. These requests for assistance range from simple questions about how the FOIA process works to complex matters involving information that an agency is withholding. Over the same time period, OGIS has also issued targeted recommendations to strengthen the FOIA programs at the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Privacy Office, which has Department-wide responsibility for setting FOIA policy.
OGIS’s dispute resolution and compliance programs are supported and influenced by robust outreach efforts that ensure the office is constantly learning more about our customer’s views and issues with the FOIA process. I recently had the pleasure of helping to kick off a series of OGIS events in the William G. McGowan Theater that reflect the office’s engagement of the community and special role in the FOIA process.
The morning of April 20, 2017, I gave opening remarks at OGIS’s first annual Open Meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to allow the public to comment on the office’s reviews and reports. After an informational presentation on OGIS’s recent work given by the office’s Director, Alina M. Semo, several members of the public made comments on the office’s work. The comments made during the session covered diverse topics such as the link between the National Archives’ ongoing work to improve agencies’ management of electronic records—especially email—to a good FOIA process, and the increase in demand for OGIS’s dispute resolution services. In addition to posting video of the event and a transcript, OGIS is also posting the written comments they receive. If you have any feedback for the office, please direct your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
After the public comment period for the Open Meeting ended and a short break, we reconvened so that I could greet the audience for the quarterly meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee. I authorized the creation of the FOIA Advisory Committee by signing its initial two-year Charter on May 20, 2014, and renewed the Committee for an additional two-year term on July 21, 2016. The Committee brings together an equal mix of FOIA expertise from inside and outside of government to address FOIA’s greatest challenges. OGIS’s Director, Alina M. Semo, serves as the Committee’s Chair and OGIS staff provides the Committee with administrative support.
During its current term, the FOIA Advisory Committee has chosen to focus on three issues that reflect how technology has changed significantly the way government operates and the public’s expectations for access. Confronting these issues and developing consensus solutions is critical for the long-term health of the government’s FOIA process. The three issues are:
- Search – In order to release records that are responsive to a FOIA request, agencies must first be able to find them; this task is complicated by the growth in the number of electronic records agencies produce each year. The Search Subcommittee is evaluating how agencies search for records, and what practices are the most effective.
- Proactive Disclosure and Accessibility – The Proactive Disclosures and Accessibility Subcommittee is investigating strategies for reducing pressure on the FOIA system by releasing agency records in advance of a request. This Subcommittee is also looking at steps FOIA programs need to take to ensure records are accessible to people with disabilities.
- Efficiencies and Resources – The Efficiencies and Resources Subcommittee is researching strategies agencies can use to make the best use of their FOIA program’s resources.
The subcommittees provide updates and discuss their work at the quarterly meetings. These meetings have also proven to be great opportunities to hear from guest speakers about particular areas of interest; during the April 20th meeting, a guest speaker from the Department of Justice spoke about the use of high-powered e-discovery tools in the FOIA process. The speaker, Doug Hibbard, shared some great insights into how these tools can improve the efficiency and efficacy of an agency’s search for responsive records. These presentations help inform the Committee’s understanding of the issues. As the current term of the FOIA Advisory Committee approaches the one-year mark, I am looking forward to hearing more about their findings, and reviewing their recommendations.
If you are interested in learning more about OGIS’s role in improving the FOIA process, I encourage you to check their regularly-updated blog, The FOIA Ombudsman. You can also keep up with their work and the latest news from the FOIA Advisory Committee by following @FOIA_Ombuds on Twitter.