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Show Open Government Some Love this Sunshine Week


Join NARA in showing open government some love this Sunshine Week!

Join NARA in showing open government some love this Sunshine Week!

Previously we let you know about some of the ways OGIS and other federal agencies are celebrating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) during Sunshine Week. Today, we’d  like to tell you about how you can contribute to a special Sunshine Week project by our parent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

As you may know, NARA created a tool that allows the public to help make historical documents more accessible and improve search results. By using the Citizen Archivist Dashboard, you can tag and transcribe some of the millions of digitized pages of records in the National Archives Catalog.

Of the groups of records that NARA is targeting for transcription this week, people in the FOIA world might be particularly interested in helping transcribe love letters from Lyndon Baines Johnson to “Lady Bird” Johnson. As the 36th President of the United Station, LBJ signed the original FOIA bill in 1966. It is well-known, however, that he did not love the bill. The series of letters might help the FOIA community see a different side of LBJ.

If you decide to give the Citizen Dashboard a try, please use the hashtag #1000pages and tweet us @USNatArchives to let us know what you’re working on and what you find in the records!

Mark Your Calendars: DHS Requester Roundtable Scheduled for March 25

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced that on Wednesday, March 25 from 2 to 3:00 pm (Eastern), DHS Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) staff will hold a Requester Roundtable teleconference. This is a fantastic opportunity for members of the requester community to learn more about the DHS process and share their ideas for improving communication.

DHS’ announcement is below. For more information, or to register for the event, email

DHS Stakeholder Engagement v.2


Sunshine Week 2015

The signatory of the original Freedom of Information Act takes in the sunshine in the White House pool. (NARA Identifier 6802686)

The signatory of the original Freedom of Information Act takes in the sunshine in the White House pool. (NARA Identifier 6802686)

With wintry weather events closing federal offices closing practically across the country, it might be easy to miss that Sunshine Week 2015 is almost upon us. We hope you all will join our friends and colleagues inside and outside government in this weeklong celebration of openness March 15-21.

What’s Happening at OGIS?

We are only a couple of months into the new year, but 2015 has already been an exciting year at OGIS. As we shared in December, OGIS staff has changed (and grown) quite a bit in the last few months!

This Sunshine Week, OGIS will highlight the federal FOIA Advisory Committee. Be on the lookout for a joint statement from the Committee members celebrating the week. The National Archives and Records Administration Twitter handle also will be hosting brief interviews with some of the Committee members throughout the week. Check out this blog and follow @USNatArchives for updates.

Our mediation team continues to assist customers from both agencies and the requester community to resolve disputes. You can keep up with our casework by taking a look at our case log.  OGIS has also posted a significant number of our final response letters. These letters, which are redacted to maintain the confidentiality of our customers, help the public and agencies understand the types of cases OGIS assists with, and what kinds of steps we take to resolve disputes.

The review team, which launched its new agency assessment program at the end of FY 2014, is preparing to release its second assessment soon. (Check out our report on our first assessment here.) During an agency assessment, our review team uses a variety of methods—including interviews, surveys, and a review of a sample of the agency’s FOIA cases—to better understand the agency’s FOIA process. The final report is designed to be a usable and readable guide to the agency’s program that highlights best practices and makes recommendations to improve the FOIA process.

What are Other Federal Agencies Doing?

Federal agencies will mark Sunshine Week in a variety of ways, including employee training and other awareness activities. A few agencies will also host events that are open to the public.

The Department of Justice will kick off Sunshine Week on Monday March 16 by hosting an event recognizing great FOIA work by federal agencies. This year’s celebration will honor FOIA professionals. Read DOJ’s announcement for details, including how to register to attend.

The Census Bureau also will host an event on Wednesday, March 18 at its Suitland, Md., headquarters at 4600 Silver Hill Road, accessible from Metro’s Green Line. The event, titled Era of Transparency: FOIA, the Privacy Act, and Open Government, kicks off at 9 a.m. featuring a discussion with the Office of Information Policy’s Melanie Pustay, Commerce’s Catrina Purvis, CREW’s Anne Weismann, and Census Bureau’s Avi Bender and Jeannie Shiffer. At 1 p.m. Michael J. Toland, Chief of the Bureau’s FOIA and Open Government Branch will discuss how FOIA and Open Government are carried out at the Census Bureau. Register now or request more information by emailing

There are many other Sunshine Week events taking place inside and outside the beltway. Take a look at to see what ‘s going on in your area. Or leave a comment below to tell us what you’ll be doing during Sunshine Week 2015.

Matters of Consent


We must ask some, but not all, requesters for their signed consent. Chalk that up to agencies that don’t have OGIS language in their SORNs. (NARA Identifier 7666253)

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently made our work a little bit easier in one small way. We no longer have to ask CFPB’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters who come to OGIS for assistance to provide consent so the agency can discuss their requests with us.

That’s because CFBP alerted the world through a Federal Register notice that it will routinely share information in its FOIA records with OGIS without first getting the consent of the individual requester.

CFPB joins seven Cabinet-level departments and five agencies which have such an agreement—known as a Privacy Act Systems of Records Notice (SORN).

We’ve written before about the Privacy Act of 1974, which covers FOIA and Privacy Act request files at every agency. FOIA request files, which are retrieved by an individual’s name or personal identifier, cannot be disclosed to another person (outside of the agency) or to another agency, with certain exceptions.

One exception is when an individual consents to disclosure of his or her records request file. Another exception to the Privacy Act’s non-disclosure provision is when an agency “routinely” needs to disclose those records for certain purposes: think the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Homeland Security. Most agencies have a pretty long list of “routine uses,” many of which are common across agencies (for example, sharing records with the DOJ when there is litigation involving the individual’s FOIA request.)

Streamlining the way agencies share with us information about FOIA requests that is covered by the Privacy Act is about more than the mediation services we offer—it also strengthens our nascent agency assessment program. That’s because without a SORN that says the agency will, as a matter of routine, share information with OGIS, we will not be able to review agency FOIA files without the agency first obtaining the consent of each individual requester. Part of our assessment program includes reviewing FOIA request files.

We’ve asked all 15 Cabinet-level departments to include an OGIS routine use in their Privacy Act SORNs. The Departments of Defense; Health and Human Services; Homeland Security; Justice; State; Transportation; and Treasury have OGIS routine uses, as do six smaller agencies, including CFPB. Thank you!

So how difficult is it to amend a Privacy Act SORN?

Several years ago, OGIS worked with DOJ to develop a model routine use that agencies can use for this purpose:

 To the National Archives and Records Administration, Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), to the extent necessary to fulfill its responsibilities in 5 U.S.C. § 552(h), to review administrative agency policies, procedures and compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and to facilitate OGIS’ offering of mediation services to resolve disputes between persons making FOIA requests and administrative agencies.

We hope the agencies that don’t have such language in their Privacy Act SORNs will consider adding it.

Throwback Thursday: The Difference between FOIA’s Fee Categories and Fee Waiver

Unlocking FOIA fees is one of the keys to a successful FOIA request. (NARA Identifier 7858132)

Unlocking FOIA fees is one of the keys to a successful FOIA request. (NARA Identifier 7858132)

In honor of throwback Thursday, we’re bringing up a topic that we’ve covered previously in this post: the difference between FOIA’s fee categories and fee waivers. This topic is an oldie but a goodie, and confusion about the topic abounds.

Let’s start with the basics

FOIA includes three basic requester categories for the purposes of fees:

  • commercial requesters;
  • educational institutions, noncommercial scientific institutions, representatives of the media; and
  • all others.

There are different fees associated with each of these categories. We have broken out the categories and associated fees in an easy-to-read chart. The category that a requester is placed in can make a  large difference in terms of the final bill a requester must pay to receive records.

FOIA also allows requesters to ask the agency to waive or reduce fees. Fee waivers demand a much higher threshold for consideration that a fee category.  In order to qualify for a fee waiver or reduced fees, a requester must show that “disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.” The Department of Justice’s guidance to agencies on how to carry out FOIA’s fee provisions includes six analytical factors that agencies should consider when deciding if fees should be waived or reduced. To qualify, requesters should address each of these factors in their requests.  A requester’s ability to pay is not considered in this process.

Now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s move on to what this means for FOIA requesters in practice.

During fiscal year (FY) 2013, federal agencies granted 5,140 requests to waive fees, according to; for context, that means that of the 678,391 FOIA requests agencies processed in FY 2013, fee waivers were granted in fewer than 1 percent of the cases. You should also know that asking for a fee waiver could slow the agency’s processing of your request. As we explained in our last blog post on this topic, most FOIA processers do not decide whether to grant a fee waiver; that decision is often sent up the chain of command or even to the appeals office, creating another step in the administrative process.

Requesters often get the best bang for their buck by making a clear case for being placed in a favorable fee category. Agencies place requesters in fee categories based on what and how the documents will be used.  Requesters should start this process by reviewing the agency’s FOIA regulations to make sure they meet the agency’s standards for a certain category, and what information they must provide to be placed in a certain category. If you request to be categorized as a member of the news media, it helps an agency evaluate your request if you include material like links to your published stories or a copy of a contract to publish a book.

You can save yourself a great deal of hassle by making sure you address your fee category status in your initial request. If you feel that an agency has placed you in an incorrect category, though, contact the FOIA officer and provide him or her with additional information to justify placement in another category.

Do you have any great tips for how to deal with FOIA fee issues? Let us know in the comments.