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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!

 

FOIA Advisory Committee begins setting priorities

 

FOIA Advisory Committee members have lots of ideas for bettering FOIA. (Photo by Michelle Farnsworth of the National Archives)

FOIA Advisory Committee members have lots of ideas for bettering FOIA.
(Photo by Michelle Farnsworth of the National Archives)

 

Expanded oversight of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process, increased proactive disclosure, and reforming—or perhaps eliminating—fees emerged as top priorities of the FOIA Advisory Committee during its inaugural meeting June 24.

The committee—comprised of 10 government members and 10 non-governmental members with considerable FOIA expertise—is mandated in the second Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) with studying FOIA across the government and advising on ways to improve FOIA.

“FOIA administration and its process is not something that is or should be entirely government run; it is a partnership between the government and requesters,” Jay Bosanko, Chief Operating Officer of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), told the committee.

The NARA-run committee spent part of its first meeting brainstorming and informally voting on ideas for legislative, policy or process changes that could improve FOIA, a process facilitated by Lynn Overmann, senior adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Committee Chair and Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) Director Miriam Nisbet noted that the brainstorming is not intended to set the committee’s agenda in stone. “This is a two-year effort,” she said. “We are not going to be able to solve everything today or come up with everything we want to discuss.”

A majority of the committee members think that FOIA would benefit from more oversight and accountability, whether through existing entities such as the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy or the Office of Government Information Services, the FOIA Ombudsman, or through an entity outside the executive branch.

Committee member Nate Jones, FOIA Coordinator at the non-governmental National Security Archive, suggested reviewing FOIA lawsuits to determine whether there are cases that need not be litigated. He also suggested a pre-litigation program within agencies to have closer scrutiny of whether the Government will defend an agency in litigation.

The committee agreed to look at what oversight now exists; identify gaps in oversight as well as best practices in state, Federal and international oversight of freedom of information programs; and how compliance audits might contribute to robust oversight.

The committee also set proactive disclosure as a priority and agreed to look at existing requirements regarding proactive disclosure, what the barriers are to proactive disclosure and what agencies have excellent proactive disclosure.  The committee also discussed having requesters help set priorities for proactive disclosures.

“To make proactive disclosure part of the culture, you need more than the FOIA people at the table,” said Karen Finnegan, Chief of the Programs and Policies Division at the Department of State, which develops FOIA policies and procedures, handles FOIA litigation and manages the Department’s special document productions. Information technology experts, open government managers and others should also be involved.

Several committee members noted that Section 508 compliance, which makes government records posted online accessible to individuals with disabilities, is an unintended obstacle for agencies striving to make proactive disclosures. Another idea: identifying common sets of records that all agencies can post.

The committee also set fees and fee waivers as a priority. The committee discussed how and whether to reform FOIA fees; whether to revise or eliminate fees for non-commercial or all requesters; and how to reduce “fee animosity” between requesters and agencies. Ginger McCall, Director of the Open Government Program at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and others suggested having bright lines with regard to fees and certain categories of requesters.

Committee members paired up (one government member and one non-government member) to lead each of the three projects.

Three other ideas that came up during brainstorming are already being addressed as part of the NAP, including a common core FOIA regulation, a consolidated government-wide FOIA portal, and training.

Other ideas the committee considered include (in no particular order):

  • Changing the 20-working-day  response time to 20-working days  for simple requests and 60-working days for complex requests
  • Aiming to fulfill every request within one year
  • Adding a role for FOIA requesters in legislation
  • Studying FOIA backlogs and coming up with a way to reduce them
  • Cross-training between Federal FOIA professionals and requesters
  • Training all agency employees that FOIA is everyone’s responsibility
  • Harnessing technology to improve the FOIA process
  • Fostering communications between agencies and requesters
  • Developing a way to access immigration records outside of the FOIA process
  • Building a bridge between FOIA and records management
  • Requiring standard performance criteria for all Federal FOIA professionals
  • Increasing discretionary release
  • Improving the FOIA referral process
  • Revising the statute so it is written in plain writing that everyone can understand
  • Reducing and clarifying Exemption 3 statutes, non-FOIA statutes that exempt certain categories of information
  • Establishing a triage system so records are not destroyed while agencies are processing FOIA requests
  • Standardizing FOIA websites
  • Improving the ability of public to access documents by metadata tagging
  • Establishing an Exemption 5 balancing test

Have ideas? We’d love to hear from you!

 

Upcoming OGIS Training Session: Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals

Learn strategies for dispute resolution and stop butting heads with colleagues and requesters. (National Archives Identifier 7722542)

Learn strategies for dispute resolution and stop butting heads with colleagues and requesters. (National Archives Identifier 7722542)

Do you find yourself locked in disputes with FOIA requesters (or agency colleagues)? Would you like to learn constructive ways to resolve or avoid disputes in the future?

OGIS will present a training session designed to help FOIA professionals develop dispute resolution skills on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at the Archives building on Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th streets NW in Washington, D.C. This free, all-day session is appropriate for anyone in your agency who works with FOIA, including FOIA Public Liaisons, program managers, FOIA processors, FOIA attorneys and others. Participants will develop a working knowledge of Alternative Dispute Resolution techniques, learn how working with OGIS can help resolve disputes, practice active listening and good communication, and develop strategies for working with difficult people.

If you have any questions or if you would like to register for this training program, please drop us a line at ogis@nara.gov. Space for this training program is extremely limited and the program fills up quickly, so please don’t wait to register.