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Government Transparency Update: FOIA Turns 50
Posted On July 5, 2016
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OGIS Deals With FOIA

In the weeks leading up to the 50th anniversary of the signing of FOIA into law, several reports were released, including the final report to the Archivist of the United States of the 2014–2016 FOIA Advisory Committee summarizing the committee’s meetings and the activities of its subcommittees and the Office of Government Information Services Strategic Planning Initiative for 2016 to 2018. The Office of Government Information Services’ (OGIS) FY2015 report, “Building a Better FOIA Process,” was published in March.

OGIS also published an analysis of federal agency use of “still interested” letters. “The term ‘still interested letter’ is shorthand for correspondence an agency sends to requesters requiring them to affirm that they remain interested in the requested records. Typically, this type of correspondence informs requesters that the request will be closed unless they respond by a certain deadline,” The FOIA Ombudsman notes.

The FOIA Advisory Committee has made significant progress, but more remains to be done. Archivist of the U.S. David Ferriero renewed the committee’s charter for an additional 2-year term, and an announcement was posted on The FOIA Ombudsman seeking new “committee members who represent a wide range of views and interests, including large and small Federal agencies, requesters from different fee categories, historians, journalists, academics and nonprofit organizations that advocate on FOIA issues.” Noticeably absent from this list is any mention of information professionals (e.g., librarians, records managers, and archivists).

Looking Ahead

Although many take an adversarial approach to FOIA, seeing FOIA requests in terms of the “other,” librarians are likely to view a request as just another avenue of information discovery. The inclusion of a librarian’s expertise—taking a strategic approach to digitizing large collections—could prove most helpful to understanding the skill sets necessary and the technology available for processing requests. Perhaps what FOIA needs is a SWAT rapid response team of its own to help agencies with limited staff and skills deal with some of the backlogs and experiment with new technology to offer a citizen-centered approach to government information.

The June 28, 2016, the Open Government Town Hall considered how public advocacy groups might help strengthen FOIA during the next Congress and incoming administration. Some of the thoughts offered during the 2-hour meeting went beyond FOIA, suggesting more a holistic approach to government records management practices and the employment of advanced technology such as the cloud.

Noting the progress made in the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, the town hall attendees discussed language that could be strengthened and remedies for areas that were slighted or entirely overlooked in the latest legislation. For example:

  • Review language that was in the initial House bill (HR 653) that did not get incorporated into the Senate version
  • Eliminate, narrow, or further clarify several of the exemptions with respect to particular types of material and privileges
  • Add a public interest balancing test
  • Suggest ways of working that could lower the cost of processing FOIA requests in terms of simple fixes
  • Improve the proactive disclosure process through a strategic approach to records management that includes the public in the identification of classes of records that are of greatest interest or importance as well as identifying records that many agree should be publicly available (i.e., Office of Legal Counsel opinions)
  • Discover what might be added to annual FOIA reports to help the public understand what each agency is being asked and the resources available to help them complete and close FOIA requests
  • As agencies update their FOIA regulations, consider how the regulations might be harmonized across agencies
  • Conduct research to ascertain the true percentage of commercial requests, the impact this type of requester has on an agency’s ability to address requests made by other types of requesters, and ways to limit the impact beyond fees
  • Identify what types of requests are run through the FOIA system today that could be carved out into another category of requests, easing the burden on FOIA offices, such as government employees asking to view personal records, immigration requests, and veteran’s records
  • Consider ways to assure that the White House and agencies’ best practices continue in the next administration
  • Diffuse pressure points (Why can’t we search across agencies’ records? Should we create an information governance mentality for FOIA officers? FOIA ombudsmen need to have teeth.)
  • Allow agencies to conduct reviews of their FOIA operations similar to the National Archives and Records Administration’s Records Management Self-Assessment
  • Help OGIS have a greater impact on agency FOIA operations (What other entities, such as inspectors general, could help in this effort?)

FOIA is important every day, not just on its anniversary or during Sunshine Week. As International Right to Know Day approaches (Sept. 28), what FOIA hearings might be scheduled in Congress? The summer recess might be a good time for advocacy groups to consider what is doable in the short term and work with committee staff members to schedule FOIA hearings around this event.

Town hall attendees recognized that these moves need to be the product of work by a range of groups, both progressive and conservative, that are interested in access to information. They vowed to reach out to groups likely to be interested in working on aspects of FOIA reform who were not in the room on June 28. While the advocacy groups that were present know FOIA officers, they could benefit from input from the records management community, particularly those who work in federal agencies and the vendors whose products they use for document management.

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Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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