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Happy Fifth Anniversary OGIS!

Tradition holds that fifth anniversary gifts are made of wood. Something like this traditional wooden ceremonial headdress, located at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, should do nicely. (National Archives Identifier: 192415)

Tradition holds that fifth anniversary gifts are made of wood. Something like this traditional wooden ceremonial headdress, located at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, should do nicely. (National Archives Identifier: 192415)

OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet opened our doors for the first time on September 9, 2009. Though it feels like those five years flashed by, we’ve accomplished quite a bit as one of the newest offices at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Here are just a few of the achievements we’re celebrating this month:

  • We’ve helped resolve—and prevent—Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disputes: Congress established OGIS to provide mediation services to resolve FOIA disputes between requesters and agencies. Director Nisbet found requests for mediation services waiting for her on the day she opened the office, and the demand for this service has remained extremely strong—around 4,000 requests for assistance, ranging from simple telephone and email inquiries to disputes requiring more structured facilitations. In providing mediation services, we advocate not for the requester or the agency but for the FOIA process.
  • We’ve reviewed FOIA practices: OGIS also is directed to review agencies’ FOIA policies, procedures and compliance. In our first five years, we’ve done this in a number of ways, including reviewing agency FOIA regulations (so far, we have reviewed about a quarter of all departments and agencies);  highlighting the agency best practices we see in our work; reviewing  and suggesting improvements to FOIA web sites and template letters; and working with agencies when we observe, through our mediation work, policies or procedures that are not consistent with FOIA law or policy, or that may be different from the practices occurring at other agencies.
  • We’ve trained others: OGIS staffers have made dozens of presentations about the importance of communicating with requesters and agency colleagues to resolve and prevent FOIA disputes. We also developed a day-long Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training program, through which hundreds of FOIA professionals have learned ways to resolve and avoid FOIA disputes.
  • We’ve made recommendations  for improving FOIA to Congress and the President: OGIS has issued 11 recommendations, five in April 2012 that we put together in our first years, four additional recommendations in 2013 and two in 2014. Seven of these recommendations require ongoing work by OGIS, including some in conjunction with agency partners and other stakeholders. Two recommendations focus on actions to be taken by other federal agencies. The remaining two recommend White House action.
  • We’ve reported on our work: OGIS has published an annual report each year that includes a detailed look at our accomplishments. Director Nisbet also testified before Congress every year on our observations, as well as our recommendations for improving FOIA.  We’ve recently begun posting the letters we send upon closing individual OGIS mediation services cases. The letters provide valuable insight into the kinds of cases we handle and how we resolve them.

So what do the next five years have in store for OGIS?  While we’ve learned to stay nimble and expect the unexpected, there are two efforts that we’re most excited about. First, we’re launching our expanded review program. Look for updates on our first reviews of agency FOIA programs in the coming weeks, with more to follow in FY 2015. Second, we’re focused on our role in the National Action Plan, particularly our support of the FOIA Advisory Committee. We can’t wait to see what this group of experts comes up with.

Finally, keep an eye out for an announcement of a special event celebrating OGIS’s first five years and the impact our office has had on the Federal FOIA landscape.

Thank you for your interest and support over the last five years. We look forward to continuing to serve as the Federal FOIA ombudsman.

 

Dancing Your Way Through Immigration Records

The Alien File, or A-File, of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor, shown here in 1986 with Bob Hope, is among the records available in the online reading room of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (NARA Identifier 6416844)

The Alien File, or A-File, of the late actress Elizabeth Taylor, shown here in 1986 with Bob Hope, is among the records available in the online reading room of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (NARA Identifier 6416844)

Interested in immigration records? You’re not alone. U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) is on track to receive about 140,000 FOIA requests in the year ending September 20, 2014.

Top USCIS FOIA officials recently took time from overseeing records request processing to meet with requesters and FOIA professionals from other agencies, offering tips to requesters for obtaining access to records and to agencies for handling 600 (!) requests a day. USCIS officials also heard suggestions for improving the process.

OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet, who moderated the August 20, 2014 stakeholder meeting, noted that bringing requesters and agencies together betters the FOIA process for all. “We have an opportunity here to resolve disputes and indeed prevent disputes, which is what this meeting is all about,” she said.

Jill Eggleston, acting chief of staff for the USCIS National Records Center, informed requesters that USCIS maintains three tracks for processing FOIA requests:

  • Track 1 consists of requests for a specific document from an Alien file, or A-File, which documents a person’s contacts with the Federal government as she or he lives as an immigrant and/or strives to become a naturalized citizen. A request for a Certificate of Naturalization would fall into Track 1.
  • Track 2 consists of requests for an entire A-File, the average size of which is 218 pages.
  • Track 3 is an accelerated track and consists of requests from individuals who have a hearing pending before an immigration judge or their attorneys.

The majority of requests USCIS receives seek entire A-Files or a particular A-File document, which can include forms, correspondence, photos, news articles and information from other federal agencies, such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of State.

When an A-File contains records that originated at ICE or another agency, USCIS refers those documents to the originating agency for direct response to the requester by the originating agency. (USCIS has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with CBP allowing USCIS to process CBP documents without referrals.) One participant suggested that USCIS allow FOIA professionals from other agencies to review referrals at USCIS to streamline the process that now involves sending records between agencies.

Form G-639 is not required to make a request to USCIS, but it is recommended.

If you’re interested in checking the status of your request or wish to know the average processing time for each track, USCIS’s FOIA web site provides such information and is updated daily.

Before you make a request, you may wish to check out the USCIS Electronic Reading Room. If a document has been requested two or more times or there’s a strong likelihood that it will be requested again, it’s a candidate for the reading room. Got suggestions for additions to the collection? Email your ideas to uscis.foia@uscis.dhs.gov.  

Other FOIA offices might be interested in USCIS’s Significant Interest Group (SIG), a team that handles non-A-File requests, which account for about 1,500 requests a year. Program managers who are tasked with searching for responsive documents are required to fill out a form documenting the search. The SIG teams issues monthly report cards to program offices based on the quality and timeliness of their responses. “It’s created a healthy competition among the program offices,” said Acting Deputy Chief of FOIA Roger Andoh.

Several suggestions for improving the USCIS FOIA process came up during the meeting, including making it easier for requesters to communicate with FOIA professionals and creating a fourth track to deal with data requests.

Mr. Andoh noted that his team provides requesters with the names, phone numbers and email addresses of the FOIA professionals processing the requests, and has facilitated calls between requesters and program managers to help the FOIA process.

Several requesters noted that it’s difficult to figure out which agencies have which records, especially since USCIS isn’t alone in the immigration landscape. Long-time readers of this blog may remember a five-part series of posts on immigration records:

Demystifying Immigration Records, Part 1
Ensuring Requests for A-Files are A-OK
ICE: A Source for Investigative Immigration Records
Immigration Records, Part 4: Customs & Border Protection Records
More on Immigration Records

USCIS plans to hold similar meetings and is aware that some folks were unable to connect with the number provided for the August 20, 2014 meeting. “We apologize for the inconvenience and we hope they will not be discouraged from participating in more engagements in the future,” Mr. Andoh said.

USCIS Invites Requesters to Stakeholder Meeting

Ear NARA Identifier 6457570

USCIS will have the ear of requesters on August 20 when its FOIA professionals share information about the agency’s FOIA program. USCIS also will be all ears for requesters who have questions or ideas about its FOIA program. (NARA identifier 647570)

U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) processed a mind-numbing 138,523 FOIA requests in the year ending September 30, 2013. (That’s more than 11,000 requests a month and nearly 600 a day!)

Wonder how the agency does it? Searching for best practices on submitting FOIA requests to USCIS for immigration records? Have feedback on how the FOIA process works at USCIS?

Mark your calendars for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday August 20 for a FOIA requester stakeholder meeting in Washington, D.C. USCIS officials, including Acting Deputy Chief of FOIA Roger Andoh, will share information about USCIS’s FOIA program and address topics of interest to USCIS requesters. OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet also will speak.

If you’d like to submit agenda items and/or questions, email FOIASIG.NRC@uscis.dhs.gov with “FOIA Stakeholder Meeting Agenda” in the subject line and attach a Word document or PDF with suggestions and questions. Submissions must be received by Wednesday August 13.

That’s also the deadline for registering to participate in person or by phone. Email your full name and the organization you represent, if any, to FOIASIG.NRC@uscis.dhs.gov with “FOIA Meeting” in the subject line. You must bring government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license. Plan to arrive by 1:15 a.m. to complete the security process.

The meeting, which will include an open forum question-and-answer session, begins at 1:30 in the Discovery Conference Room at 20 Massachusetts Avenue N.W., near Union Station on Metro’s Red Line.

Guest Post: Catching Up with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Eureka! This painting by Gary Sheehan depicts the moment in 1942 when scientists observed the world's first nuclear reactor as it became self-sustaining.

Eureka! This painting by Gary Sheehan depicts the moment in 1942 when scientists observed the world’s first nuclear reactor as it became self-sustaining. (National Archives Identifier 542144)

We welcome guest bloggers! The following post is from Government Information Specialist Mark H. Graff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

At the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s FOIA, Privacy, and Information Collections branch, we’ve been looking for ways to streamline our internal processes and increase the use of technology to better respond to FOIA requests. We purchased several processing tools to help process records faster, and to track the work that comes through the branch. We recently started weekly team meetings at which we go over significant developments or problems arising in our cases and review agency FOIA procedures. We’ve already found a few ways to speed case processing and provide better customer service to our stakeholders and requesters.

One low-cost improvement we’ve made is a “FOIA Quick and Easy Guide for Record Holders” to help our NRC staff when they’re called on to search for records responsive to FOIA requests.  Because NRC has offices across the country and many employees aren’t involved regularly in estimating fees or searching for records, we learned that employees weren’t sure where to start when they’re assigned a request.  In response, our small postcard-sized reference guide offers step-by-step instructions for conducting searches and getting the records back to the FOIA shop for processing. We handed out this guide at recent agency-wide FOIA training and are making it available to individual program offices.

Another improvement the NRC has made is buying several licenses to allow Program and Regional Offices to use electronic redaction applications for viewing and suggesting records redactions. We no longer have to mail the records, have records holders mark suggested redactions by hand, and then mail the records back to us for processing. This saves both time and resources.  We’ve also started a project to digitize our archived FOIA request files to more efficiently keep up with our Records Management duties and to make the task of finding some of these old requests easier.

We’re proud of the improvements we’ve made, and we believe they will further enhance the agency’s transparency and help us to respond to our requesters more quickly.

OGIS Sets Up Shop at IRE

OGIS offered ombuds advice -- but sadly, not lemonade -- at the recent IRE conference.

OGIS offered ombuds advice, rather than lemonade, at the recent IRE conference. National Archives Identifier 557757

OGIS recently set up a pop-up shop, of sorts, on the West Coast offering one-on-one mini ombuds sessions with journalists and gathering ideas for improving the FOIA process.

I’m pleased to have represented OGIS at the annual conference of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving investigative reporting.

The conference, June 26-29 in San Francisco, came on the heels of the inaugural meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee, which is mandated with studying FOIA across the government and advising on ways to improve FOIA. The committee’s first meeting included brainstorming on legislative, policy and process changes to improve the FOIA process.

Journalists attending the IRE conference had some ideas for improving the process, which they shared with me and others at a session titled “Help Shape FOIA Reform & Join the #FOIAFriday Community.”

Several of the ideas include, in no particular order:

  •  Increasing online posting of government records. The FOIA Advisory Committee thought increased proactive disclosure should be a priority—and several journalists and a media lawyer attending the IRE session agreed. “I think we should be moving to putting everything out there,” said Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter with ProPublica, who noted that the city of Oakland, CA, proactively posts its records online.
  •  Completely exempting journalists from FOIA fees. Journalists are generally afforded media status for FOIA fee category purposes, meaning they pay no search or review fees, and pay duplication costs after the first 100 pages. Journalists are not granted fee waivers by virtue of holding press credentials—like any other requesters, journalists must meet analytical factors, including that the public interest is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government. That should change, said Djordje Padejski, innovation projects director at the JSK Journalism Fellowships program at Stanford University. “In many European countries, journalists are exempt from fees by default,” he said “The U.S. is seen as a leader on freedom of information issues and the fees should reflect that. I believe journalists should be exempt by default from paying fees.”
  • Putting sanctions in the FOIA statute for violating the law. “How many FOIA officers have you seen demoted for violating the FOIA” asked Mr. Padejski. “Put teeth in the law; it’s their work to know the law.”

In addition to presenting on another panel titled “Free the Data,” during which I discussed best practices for database requests and the importance of FOIA Public Liaisons in the FOIA process, I also held 20-minute sessions in which journalists could ask for help with the FOIA process. I met with about a dozen journalists who asked for help on everything from filing a FOIA request to how to deal with a request that an agency had closed in error. A big thanks to IRE for asking me to be part of its conference. As I told many of the journalists I met with, Happy FOIAing!