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Record Keeping for FOIA Requesters 101

Choose any record keeping method that works for you! (NARA Identifier 6348589)

Choose any record keeping method that works for you! (NARA Identifier 6348589)

Here at OGIS, we love good record keeping practices. Not only are we housed within the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA), which has responsibility for setting the federal government’s record keeping policies, we also know that strong agency record keeping is the backbone of a good Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office. If an agency is not keeping good records, it is considerably harder—if not impossible—to locate records that are responsive to a request.

Record keeping is not just important for agencies; it can be critical for FOIA requesters. Here are a couple of tips for navigating the FOIA process as smoothly and efficiently as possible:

Keep track of your tracking numbers. FOIA requires agencies to provide requesters with a tracking number for each request that will take longer than 10 days to process. Requesters should be able to use this number to find the status of their request online or on the telephone. Having a system to track your tracking numbers is particularly important if you have a number of outstanding requests because it will help make sure that the agency can quickly check the status of your request and minimizes any confusion about which request you are calling or emailing about.

Choose the tracking method that works best for you. Like handwritten lists? Go for it. Prefer using a spreadsheet that allows you to sort and search? Great. A number of private services also store information about FOIA requests, sometimes for a fee. Whichever method you choose, be sure to include a couple of key pieces of information along with the tracking number, including the subject of the request, the agency processing the request, and the date you sent your request.

Document your initial request and appeal. It’s important to have proof that you sent a FOIA request or an appeal on a particular date in the event that machines malfunction or humans make mistakes. FOIA requests generally are processed on a first in, first out basis. The date of your initial request determines where your request is placed in the agency’s queue. If an agency loses your initial request and you can show when it was sent, the agency might be willing to put your request in the place it would have been in the line if it had been logged in appropriately. For appeals, the date is important because many agencies require that appeals be made within a certain time frame. (Appeal times vary by agency and generally run 30, 45 or 60 days, although they range from 10 days to no time limit.) Some agencies may consider appeals that are filed late, but some will not.

If your request is printed (because you are mailing or faxing it) or you are sending it as an email attachment, remember to include the date on the upper right-hand corner. An easy and cost-effective method to document submission of your initial request is saving the record that the request was sent, whether via email, fax, or registered mail.

Following these easy steps helps you protect your rights under the FOIA, and helps make sure the process is as painless as possible for both the requester and the agency.

FOIA requesters, how do you keep track of your requests? Agency FOIA folks, what record keeping best practices have you observed among your requesters? Please share in the comments.

FOIA Advisory Committee to Meet January 27, 2015


While we can’t promise to have rocking chairs with built in fans available at the next FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting, we’d be glad to save you a seat (NARA Identifier 594932)

While we can’t promise to have rocking chairs with built in fans available at the next FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting, we’d be glad to save you a seat (NARA Identifier 594932)

Mark your calendars and reserve your seat for the next meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee on Tuesday, January 27 from 10 a.m.  to 1 p.m. The meeting will be in the Archivist’s Reception Room (Room 105) at the National Archives Building, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, D.C. Space is limited and our list fills up quickly so reserve your place on the list soon!

Eventbrite - Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee Meeting

The FOIA Advisory Committee brings together agency personnel and outside stakeholders who have considerable expertise in the law and the FOIA process to talk about how to improve the system. The Committee has three subcommittees that are looking at specific areas of concern: making more government information available outside the FOIA process; examining the fee system; and investigating current oversight and accountability systems.

This meeting provides an opportunity for the public to hear updates from the subcommittees  and to provide input for the Committee to consider. You do not have to attend the meeting in person to share your views with the Committee. You can submit questions and comments to the Committee at:

While we can’t live stream this meeting, we will record it and make it available on YouTube as soon as possible. You can find recordings of past meetings, plus meeting agendas and documents referenced during the meeting here.

For questions about accessibility or to request accommodations, please contact Christa Lemelin at 202-741-5773 or


Change is in the Air

Here at OGIS, we have been contemplating more than just the autumn leaves (NARA identifier 6000604)

Here at OGIS, we have been contemplating more than just the autumn leaves (NARA identifier 6000604)

If you keep an eye on OGIS, you know that we are celebrating some exciting changes and welcoming new staff. Beyond those changes, we are also saying goodbye to Miriam Nisbet, OGIS’s first Director, who retired at the end of November.

Miriam herself has written about her career in fostering access to information, and we will be forever grateful for her work establishing OGIS in its first five years. On a more personal note, we will miss her thoughtful, insightful leadership as we navigate OGIS’s path forward.

Change can be challenging, but also exciting. NARA will be hiring a new OGIS Director in the coming months, and we look forward to new leadership and the opportunities and challenges the future will bring.

OGIS Launches First Agency Assessment

We’re pleased to announce completion of our first assessment of an agency FOIA program, officially launching the expansion of our review program and helping us better fulfill our statutory mandate to review agency FOIA policies, procedures and compliance. 5 U.S.C. §§ 552 (h)(2)(A) and (B).

We’ll have a look at individual agency FOIA programs as we grow the OGIS review program. (NARA Identifier 543740)

We’ll have a look at individual agency FOIA programs as we grow the OGIS review program. (NARA Identifier 543740)

The National Archives and Records Administration’s own Office of General Counsel agreed to be the subject of our first assessment. The Office’s FOIA team, which processes about 300 FOIA requests a year for operational records created or received in carrying out the Archives’ mission and responsibility, spent hours answering our questions, talking with us about how it administers FOIA, and opening its FOIA files for us to examine. The result is a 10-page report  documenting our observations, including best practices, and our recommendations. At the end is an at-a-glance summary of our recommendations that we hope provides a check-list, of sorts, of steps to be taken to ensure FOIA works better for all—agency and requester.

As with our mediation services, we conduct our assessments of agency FOIA programs as an advocate for the FOIA process with a focus on impartiality and fairness. We’re an ombudsman’s office and as such, advocate for neither the agency nor the requester, but for the FOIA process to work as intended.

We began noodling the framework for OGIS assessments in 2012 when we met with our Archives colleagues at the Information Security Oversight Office, which evaluates the effectiveness of the security classification programs established by Government and industry to protect national security information. We left that meeting with a clear sense that the FOIA statute itself should guide us.

A line-by-line page-by-page review of the statute (a process familiar to thousands of FOIA professionals!) resulted in an outline for our assessment program. We also consulted other FOIA resources, including, but not limited to, the Guide to the Freedom of Information Act and guidance published by the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy; the Office of Management and Budget Guidelines for Fees; and OGIS’s observations and best practices that we developed over the last five years.

Armed with what we call the elements of an effective FOIA program, we created an assessment methodology that includes an online survey for FOIA professionals. The questions are designed to provide insight into a FOIA program without duplicating questions already asked in Annual FOIA and Chief FOIA Officer reports.

We assess the survey results along with the agency’s FOIA regulation, website, training materials and other written materials. We also review the agency’s FOIA litigation and look at resources such as Annual FOIA and Chief FOIA Officer reports and reports from open government groups. Finally, we visit the FOIA program to interview agency FOIA professionals and review FOIA request files before writing a final report. The report is not designed to be a “gotcha” document or to provide a grade, but rather to provide a thoughtful analysis of what works and what doesn’t along with recommendations for improvement.

Next, we’ll assess the Archives’ Special Access and FOIA Program, which processes FOIA requests for archival federal records in the Washington, D.C., area. In 2015, we plan to assess FOIA programs at the Department of Education and at components of the Department of Homeland Security.

In December, two new staff members will join the OGIS team allowing us to regularly assess FOIA programs. As we ramp up our agency assessments, we’ll continue the review work that we already do, including reviewing and commenting on proposed agency FOIA regulations; reviewing and suggesting improvements to agency FOIA materials; and working with agencies when we observe policies and procedures that appear to be inconsistent with FOIA law or policy.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about our nascent agency assessment program.

FOIAonline Celebrates its Second Birthday

FOIAonline didn't celebrate its birthday with a toga party as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1934, but FOIAonline partners from 11 Federal agencies did enjoy cupcakes. (NARA Identifier 6728531)

FOIAonline didn’t celebrate its birthday with a toga party as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1934, but FOIAonline partners from 11 Federal agencies did enjoy cupcakes. (NARA Identifier 6728531)

The same week we at OGIS celebrated our 5th birthday, we celebrated another important birthday—that of FOIAonline.

An online portal aimed at expanding public access to information requested under FOIA, FOIAonline went live two years ago when five Federal agencies, including the Office of General Counsel at our parent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration, began using the system.

Eleven agencies now use FOIAonline, including Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Navy. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which receives about 600 requests a day (!), recently began accepting requests that do not contain personally identifiable information.

When FOIAonline launched on October 1, 2012, about 1,600 agency FOIA professionals were registered users. Two years later, more than 4,100 FOIA professionals and 170,000 requesters are registered users. In those two years, FOIA professionals processed more than 200,000 FOIA requests and posted nearly 400,000 records.

For agencies, FOIAonline provides a secure website to receive and process requests, post responses, generate metrics, manage records electronically and create management reports. Requesters can use FOIAonline to submit FOIA requests, track their progress, communicate with the processing agency, search other requests, access previously released responsive documents and file appeals with participating agencies.

OGIS founding Director Miriam Nisbet’s involvement in the project dates to its very early days. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began looking at the feasibility of creating a FOIA portal using the framework of, the Federal rulemaking portal that allows people to comment on Federal regulations and other agency regulatory actions. By leveraging the infrastructure of, FOIAonline avoided many start-up costs, resulting in a total of $1.3 million spent to launch the system.

During the observance of OGIS’s first five years, some asked if OGIS’s involvement with FOIAonline was a productive use of OGIS resources. “We heard again and again that members of the FOIA community wanted an inexpensive shared service to make it easier to communicate with requesters and facilitate requests,” Director Nisbet said. “FOIAOnline, which is built on an existing platform and creates a central clearinghouse for released documents, addressed these needs in a number of ways.”

Krista Boyd, minority counsel to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, noted that OGIS’s involvement helped FOIAonline succeed.

“I think having OGIS involved gave it the gravitas it needed to take off,” Ms. Boyd said.