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Our pals over at MuckRock have been working not only on FOIA at the federal level (MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy is a colleague of mine on NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee and was highlighted last month on the FOIA Ombudsman’s blog!). They’ve also been working on FOIA/open records at the state and local levels. Check out their new 4-part series “What’s the state of state public records law?” written by Jessie Gomez.
Over the last nine months, our FOIA Fellow Jessie Gomez has been looking at public records law across the nation through our State of State Public Records Law project. Today, we’ll be exploring the major takeaways from her reporting.
Primarily, our coverage has dealt with ambiguities within records law, barriers to access, legislative efforts to reform state records law, and the notable players that have made transparency a reality. Our series will take a look at all of these components and their contributions to your state’s law…
…Public records law has become an integral part of keeping our government accountable. Although it can oftentimes be difficult to navigate, its effect on democracy has been worth the battle.
A new administration has led the public to begin asking questions about their government and know more about its role in their daily lives. With a growing interest to keep those in power under close watch, FOIA and the public records system will remain a powerful tool.
As for the actual system, it’s no surprise that records law continues to face challenges in unlocking information for the pubic. However, ongoing conversations to reform both FOIA and state public records law have led to changes at the local level and reforms in states like California, Massachusetts, and New York.
Although it can seem like the state of public records law isn’t getting any better, so long as that conversation is ongoing, requesters can rest assured that it is headed in the right direction and will continue to evolve.
Happy Sunshine week (well, technically it’s next week, March 10-16, 2019)! The National Security Archive did a massive FOIA audit which showed that FOIA delays and backlogs continue across federal agencies. the most interesting/disturbing to me were the requests that fell into a FOIA “referral black hole” where agencies refer to or consult with other agencies on “any FOIA request in which it feels another agency or agencies may possibly claim ownership of, or “equity” in, the information within the records.” These referrals often result in massive delays.
One of the easiest ways to better deal with these referral delays is to allow FOIA.gov‘s request form to be submitted to multiple agencies (or multiple units within agencies) if the requester feels that the question overlaps agencies. but If anyone has other good ideas for how agencies can more quickly deal with the “referral black hole” please send me an email at freegovinfo AT gmail DOT com.
Washington, D.C. March 8, 2019 – Five federal agencies have FOIA requests more than a decade old and one, the National Archives and Records Administration, has a FOIA request more than 25 years old, this according to a National Security Archive Audit released today to mark the beginning of Sunshine Week. The survey also found there is a correlation between agencies with the oldest FOIA requests and those with the largest FOIA backlogs.
The Archive Audit team parsed through the annual FOIA reports federal agencies are required to submit to the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy and found that while many agencies appear to have used new reporting requirements as a tool to address the oldest agency FOIA requests, others have let decades-old requests linger. The Archive used the Fiscal Year 2017 reports because they were the most comprehensive collection available at the time of publication due to the delay caused by the government shutdown, and will update this posting once the complete set of FY 2018 reports are available.
The key driver for FOIA requests that could be renting cars by now and growing backlogs is the “referral black hole.” Agencies currently refer or consult on any FOIA request in which it feels another agency or agencies may possibly claim ownership of, or “equity” in, the information within the records. This daisy chain of referrals can often result in decades-long delay, and the re-review of the same document by multiple agencies is redundant, costly, and inefficient.
Russ Kick of AltGov2 is again on the FOIA case. This time he’s analyzed the Department of Interior’s proposed changes to their FOIA regulations (and helpfully cobbled together the current regulations with DoI’s proposed changes). Comments on the proposed changes can be submitted electronically by JANUARY 28, 2019. Here’s the current regulations and the proposed rules changes posted to regulations.gov.
Here’s my own take on this. Department of Interior’s reason for updating its FOIA regulations is that they’ve had “Exponential increases in requests and litigation.” From Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 to FY 2018, incoming FOIA requests to the Department increased 30 percent (from 6,428 to over 8,350). So it would make sense that they’d want to update their regulations to deal with the exponential increase in requests. But instead of requesting more staff to deal with the increase in requests or look for ways to proactively release more records, their proposed changes:
- look to expand the definition and reasoning of “burdensome” requests that can be denied. “The bureau will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.”
- place monthly limits on the number of requests per month from frequent requesters.
- Make it more confusing and difficult to submit requests (eg it’s unclear whether requests will be accepted via email in the new regs).
- No longer refer or forward mistakenly directed requests. “A request to a particular bureau or a particular bureau component (for example, a request addressed to a regional or field office) will be presumed to seek only records from that particular bureau or particular component and will not be forwarded to another bureau or component.”
- Change “time limits” to “time frames,” making the time to fulfill requests more squishy and undefined.
There’s probably more buried in this request. Check out Russ’ analysis at MuckRock. And PLEASE send comments to Department of Interior about their proposed changes. Comments on the proposed changes can be submitted electronically by JANUARY 28, 2019.
The Department of the Interior wants to drastically change how it deals with Freedom of Information Act requests. To do that, it had to make a proposal, published in the Federal Register, that the public can comment on for 30 days. In theory, it has to consider this input before finalizing any changes to its FOIA regulations.
That proposal was published on December 28th, 2018, which is 1) a Friday 2) in the middle of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day 3) during a government shutdown. Any one of those is a tried-and-true way to slip something past the public, but all three simultaneously? That is the trifecta of bureaucratic underhandedness.
So, now that the holidays are behind us for another year, let’s take a look at Interior’s FOIA wishlist, which is primarily designed to hobble requesters and solidify the department’s power. (To make it easier to see the many changes Interior wants, I’ve created a redline version of their currently FOIA regulations, with added language in bold and deletions in strikethrough, which you can see here.)
Steven Aftergood over at Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News project writes today that President Trump recently commented off-handedly that reports from the Department of Defense’ Inspector General should be private and not publicly accessible. It’s unclear if this off-the-cuff comment will lead to less public access to these important reports, but Aftergood notes that “secrecy in the Department of Defense has increased noticeably in the Trump Administration” but that the Pentagon still publishes a massive amount of information. What is clear is that this one small comment could have huge implications going forward from “For Official Use Only” markings to restrict access to information to perhaps an erosion of the FOIA process. This is certainly something to keep an eye on.
The recurring dispute over the appropriate degree of secrecy in the Department of Defense arose in a new form last week when President Trump said that certain audits and investigations that are performed by the DoD Inspector General should no longer be made public.
“We’re fighting wars, and they’re doing reports and releasing it to the public? Now, the public means the enemy,” the President said at a January 2 cabinet meeting. “The enemy reads those reports; they study every line of it. Those reports should be private reports. Let him do a report, but they should be private reports and be locked up.”
It is not clear what the President had in mind. Did he have reason to think that US military operations had been damaged by publication of Inspector General reports? Was he now directing the Secretary of Defense to classify such reports, regardless of their specific contents? Was he suggesting the need for a new exemption from the Freedom of Information Act to prevent their disclosure?
Or was this simply an expression of presidential pique with no practical consequence? Thus far, there has been no sign of any change to DoD publication policy in response to the President’s remarks.
We posted about the Dept of Interior records schedule request to NARA and have been actively working on this issue for a few weeks now. Patrice McDermott, Director of Government Information Watch — many of you will have known Patrice from her ALA Washington Office days or laster as director of Open The Government — just posted the request below to govdoc-l so I thought I’d share beyond the govt documents library community. Please check out the draft letter that Patrice and several others in the FOIA/open govt communities have penned. Send any comments or concerns her way. And if you’d like to copy/paste anything from her letter — or from Stanford UL’s letter to AOTUS Ferriero for that matter — for your own comment to NARA, please do so BY NOVEMBER 26!
Here is a DRAFT letter/comments to NARA. Many thanks to the folks who have been working on this – this letter draws heavily on your work.
Thoughts, edits – and specific concerns about particular sets of records – welcomed. Please send to me [email protected]
It dawned on me that T’giving week is almost upon us… I plan to send this Friday 23 November. It is open to both organizational and individual signatories.
As you may know, the DOI has put in a request to NARA for disposition authority for a large # of record groups. Disposition does not equal immediate destruction; mostly the records would be marked Temporary — with ‘disposal’ dates that vary greatly based on the records, what they document, etc. Very few govt records (1-3%, according to NARA) are designated as Permanent/Archival.
The request is confusing to read & follow because DOI — following NARA guidance of recent years — has moved what used to be discrete series of records with discrete records schedules (as permanent or temporary) into what are being called ‘big buckets.’ The DOI request is essentially cross-walking discrete records series to their new bucket. And made the request for all of the buckets at one time.
- PDF of full DOI request
- PDF of Tabular Summary (expanded so Records Descriptions are readable in full)
- PDF Appraisal memo (from NARA)
The volume aside, there are a number of concerning aspects to this request.
I pulled together an annotated version of the NARA appraisal memo to get a handle on what was requested – and provisionally approved by NARA. I highlighted language in the Appraisal Memo (Blue=Good retention; Green = NARA comments worth noting; Orang(ish) = Concerning), and indicated the #s of Records Groups (not #s of records) covered in each NARA appraisal entry.
One aspect that has troubled me is from DOI’s Request for Records Disposition Authority
This change to a departmental schedule, from individual bureau schedules, moves disposition authority for Record Groups 022 (FWS), 049 (BLM), 057 (USGS), 075 (BIA), 079 (NPS), 115 (BOR), 471 (OSMRE),
473 (BSEE), and 589 (BOEMRE) to 048. (which is Office of the Secretary (OS) – Record Group 048)
Regardless of who the Secretary of Interior is or may be, it gives me pause to put authority for requesting disposal for these sensitive records in the office of a political appointee. So, there is a potential question for NARA (or its Hill overseers).
I am really troubled by the repeated language — by NARA — about “interest to NARA Researchers” (as opposed to??), and that records “do not document significant actions of federal officials”.
The legal definition of Records (44 U.S.C. Chapter 33)§ 3301) is:
(1) IN GENERAL.-As used in this chapter, the term “records”-
(A) includes all recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government or because of the informational value of data in them
I would welcome your thoughts on particular sets of records/buckets and how they have been appraised — where the appraisal may fail to address the research/legal/etc needs of other communities (other than “NARA researchers”), where data, on which ongoing datasets are built, might be irretrievably destroyed, etc.