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FOIA Advisory Committee Seeks Passionate Government Employee for Long-Term Relationship

We are looking for a government volunteer to help us modernize FOIA. (NARA Identifier 516016)

We are looking for a government volunteer to help us modernize FOIA. (NARA Identifier 516016)

A position for a government representative recently opened on the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee! The Committee  is a diverse group of FOIA experts from inside and outside the government with the shared goal of tackling some of FOIA’s trickiest issues.

In keeping with the terms of the Committee’s charter, we are currently accepting applications for a FOIA professional from a non-cabinet level agency. Individuals interested in serving on the Committee must comply with the Committee’s bylaws.

If you are interested in serving on the committee or nominating someone to serve on the committee, please send an email to ogis@nara.gov by Tuesday, April 14, 2015.

Please include the following information:

1. A short paragraph or “bio” (no more than 250 words, please) summarizing your resume  or otherwise highlighting the contributions you (or your nominee) would bring to this committee;
2. A resume or curriculum vitae; and
3. Your full contact information (or that of the nominee).

We also ask that you use your full name (last name, first name) as the subject line of your email. We look forward to hearing from you!

Let’s Keep the Sun Shining All Year Long

OGIS thanks everyone for a great Sunshine Week and applauds all efforts to keep the focus on openness all year long. (NARA Identifier 194183

OGIS thanks everyone for a great Sunshine Week and applauds all efforts to keep the focus on openness all year long. (NARA Identifier 194183

Another Sunshine Week is in the history books. As always, the celebrations served as a powerful reminder about the importance of open government laws like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and what we can all do to open the government more to the public. Just because Sunshine Week is over, though, doesn’t mean that it’s too late for an agency to join in the celebration.

As we mentioned in our pre-Sunshine Week blog, a number of federal agencies joined the celebration by hosting trainings, events, and conducting other awareness-raising activities. Here are a couple of examples of great steps agencies can take to spotlight government transparency.

Recognizing FOIA Professionals

Here at OGIS, we love the idea of recognizing FOIA professionals. Saying thank you is a great way to keep your staff motivated, and remind them of the importance of their work to the operations of the agency and the government as a whole.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) kicked off Sunshine Week with an event recognizing FOIA professionals across the government. OIP handed out awards for Exceptional Service by a FOIA Professional, Exceptional FOIA Service by a Team of Agency Professionals, Lifetime Service Award, Excellence in Management, Outstanding Contributions by a New Employee, and Outstanding Customer Service. Read more about the event, and see a full list of winners on OIP’s blog.

The Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Treasury also hosted celebrations for FOIA personnel. During DHS’ event, referred to as the “Oscars of the FOIA,” Delores  Barber, Deputy Chief FOIA Officer,  treated FOIA professionals to a buffet lunch, recognized a number of staff from DHS components for their hard work and contributions, and awarded a  “FOIA Processor of the Year.” Saying “thank you” to your staff does not have to be complicated affair; DHS’ event began as a small pizza party a few years back.

Leading by Example

Several times  over the past few years, we’ve discussed the importance of executive support for FOIA offices. Archivist of the United States of America David Ferriero once again showed great leadership by issuing a message to all employees reminding them that FOIA is everyone’s responsibility. Treasury’s Chief FOIA Officer also sent a similar message to all of the agency’s employees and contractors.

We hope you all enjoyed the Sunshine Week celebration, and are ready to work with us to keep the focus on the importance of open government all year long! Does your agency do anything special to recognize its FOIA staff or remind all employees that FOIA is their responsibility? Let us know about it in the comments!

You Can Help Keep a FOIA Request Out of Court

Judges have a critical role to play in FOIA, but we should avoid clogging up the courts with FOIA cases where we can. (NARA Identifier 6010581)

Judges have a critical role to play in FOIA, but we should avoid clogging up the courts with FOIA cases where we can. (NARA Identifier 6010581)

Since OGIS opened in 2009, we’ve worked to improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process by providing mediation services and training to help agency FOIA professionals develop skills to communicate productively with requesters. We frequently see our efforts paying off as the FOIA culture shifts from being contentious and litigious to communicative and collaborative; but, we also know we have more work to do.

In December the FOIA Project, based at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, issued a report showing that the number of FOIA lawsuits filed in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 rose to 422, a 13-percent increase from FY 2013 when 372 FOIA lawsuits were filed and the highest number since 2001.

When talking about the number of FOIA lawsuits filed in a year, it‘s useful to put it into context of the number of FOIA requests filed each year. For each year between 2010 and 2014, the percentage of FOIA lawsuits filed compared to the number of requests overall held steady: about one half of one percent of FOIA requests ended in court. (Of course, not all lawsuits filed in a particular year are the result of requests filed that same year.)

FOIA_suit)stats

Historical data are also important for context. The number of FOIA lawsuits filed each year has actually dropped fairly significantly over the last few decades. A 1987 Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) Statement on Resolution of Freedom of Information Act Disputes noted that requesters filed about 500 new FOIA cases per year.

The flip side of the statistic regarding the number of lawsuits filed is the number of requests that are processed without a lawsuit. Often the process works—though the lack of a lawsuit does not mean that the process worked perfectly, or even worked at all. The reasons that FOIA requesters do not file lawsuits are as varied as the reasons that requesters do file FOIA lawsuits.

Why are FOIA Suits Filed?

Under FOIA, requesters can file a suit and ask for a judge to rule on whether a federal agency can withhold material under the law. This arrangement gives the judicial branch a critical role in the process: Courts interpret the statute and provide some oversight to the process.

A 2014 ACUS report, Resolving FOIA Disputes Through Targeted  ADR Strategies,  found “wide variation in the form and substance of FOIA disputes between requesters and agencies, in the motivation, resources, and sophistication of  requesters, and in the missions and the level of interest in agency records.” There is no one path that leads to a FOIA suit: some requesters work with agencies for years before they decide to file a lawsuit; others routinely file on the 21st day; still others file lawsuits because they believe – fairly or unfairly – that it is the only way to get an agency to pay attention to a request.

What Can I Do to Avoid Becoming Another Statistic (aka, a lawsuit)?

The number of FOIA lawsuits filed is unlikely to ever fall to zero, but there are common-sense steps that agencies can take that will help make sure lawsuits are more rare.

In 2012, we posted a list of tips for “How to Invite a Lawsuit.” Avoiding these “tips” by clearly explaining exemptions and decisions to withhold material to a requester, providing an estimated date of completion, and communicating with requesters can help avoid lawsuits. We at OGIS also can help resolve disputes by facilitating clear communications between agencies and requesters and paving a potential path forward.

The bottom line is that good customer service and the use of dispute resolution skills may not stop all FOIA lawsuits but  will help keep some FOIA disputes out of the courts. Additionally, good customer service and the use of dispute resolution skills make the FOIA process more understandable and less contentious for everyone.

How Can We Help?

To use our mediation services, please contact us at ogis@nara.gov. We also provide training for agency FOIA professionals in dispute resolution skills; learn more about our training here: https://ogis.archives.gov/news-and-events/training-opportunities/dispute-resolution-skills-training.htm.

Meet Members of the FOIA Advisory Committee

Federal FOIA Advisory Committee Welcomes Sunshine Week

Members of the FOIA Advisory Committee join in wishing Sunshine Week a happy birthday! (NARA Identifier 6728621)

Members of the FOIA Advisory Committee join in wishing Sunshine Week a happy birthday! (NARA Identifier 6728621)

The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee is pleased to issue a joint statement, below, honoring the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week.

As regular readers of our blog know, the FOIA Advisory Committee is comprised of FOIA experts from inside and outside of government. Committee members are working collaboratively to address major issues in the FOIA process and develop consensus recommendations.

The Committee holds a public meeting once per quarter (mark your calendars for the next meeting on Tuesday, April 21). Check out the Committee’s website for the minutes and a link to videos of past meetings, and for information on how you can provide input and feedback.

Joint Statement of the Freedom of Information (FOIA) Advisory Committee

 

The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee joins FOIA professionals, open government advocates and journalists across the country in celebrating the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week.

The members of the FOIA Advisory Committee represent diverse views from inside and outside government, and we share the goal of improving FOIA by fostering dialogue between and among the Federal government and the requester community; receiving public comments; and developing recommendations for refining and enhancing FOIA administration.

Sunshine Week, an initiative launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, similarly brings together Federal, state and local agencies, and the public to focus on openness in government operations. Over the last decade, government agencies, media outlets, open government groups, libraries, and nonprofits around the country have embraced this celebration.

The FOIA Advisory Committee is pleased to join the effort to improve FOIA as it works on three key issues central to improving FOIA: oversight and accountability of agency FOIA programs, FOIA fees, and proactive disclosures. We look forward to continuing our work together to explore these issues over the next year and beyond, and welcome input from the public at any time. For more information, please visit https://ogis.archives.gov/foia-advisory-committee.htm.