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This week is Sunshine Week hosted by the News Leaders Association! Begun in 2005 to highlight and promote open government, FOIA and access to government information (well that’s how we here at FGI celebrate it 😉 ), you can track on what’s happening this week on the Sunshine Week twitter account, share your own Sunshine Week happenings at #sunshineweek, and also check out the information in Sunshine Week toolkit for how to get involved, interesting events, inspiration and resources for teachers, librarians, journalists, and school, civic or non-profit organizations.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED:
Publish Sunshine Week content toolkit: Major news organizations work together on a special reporting package free for anyone to publish in print or online during Sunshine Week, made available at the start of the week’s events. Find this year’s offerings under Content Toolkit.
Share your stories: Sunshine Week celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2020, and we’ve made a lot of gains in open government thanks to your work. Please share your experiences, success stories, FOIA battles, new laws and other efforts on behalf of open government. Tweet to us @SunshineWeek or use #SunshineWeek to share.
Join us March 18: In partnership with First Amendment Coalition, we’re hosting a discussion on navigating barriers to public records and fighting for open government. Make sure to register here.
If you are in the world of journalism, you can highlight the importance of openness through stories, editorials, columns, cartoons or graphics.
If you are part of a civic group, you can organize local forums, sponsor essay contests or press elected officials to pass proclamations on the importance of open access.
If you are an educator, you can use Sunshine Week to teach your students about how government transparency improves our lives and makes our communities stronger.
If you are an elected official, you can pass a resolution supporting openness, introduce legislation improving public access or encourage training of government employees to ensure compliance with existing laws mandating open records and meetings.
If you are a private citizen, you can write a letter to the editor or spread the word to friends through social media.
An activist group called Reclaim the Records recently submitted the “mother-of-all-FOIA requests” asking for billions of pages scanned through NARA’s public-private digitization partnership program. Here’s the twitter thread describing it:
Hey! @USNatArchives just did something new, and really good for transparency!
And we think it maybe *might* be because of that "mother-of-all-FOIA requests" we just filed with them. 😌
So, okay, remember how we filed this on October 14th? Well…
— Reclaim The Records (@ReclaimTheRecs) November 19, 2020
Well now at least NARA has put up a page showing all of their digitization partners and what publications/record groups these organizations are scanning. It looks mostly to be ancestry, fold3 and familysearch, but there are other groups like the National Archives of Korea, National Collection of Aerial Photography (UK), and NOAA (Logbooks from 19th century naval ships and expeditions!).
From what I can tell, these scans seem to be going into NARA’s catalog and are freely available! Thanks NARA and also BIG thanks Reclaim the Records for making a big public deal about NARA’s public-private partnership program and making sure that the public is aware of those BILLIONS of scanned pages.
Politico obtained government emails that a Trump political appointee instructed the CDC to alter a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) pertaining to schools holding in-person classes.
The report in question was “SARS-CoV-2–Associated Deaths Among Persons Aged <21 Years — United States, February 12–July 31, 2020”
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) issued an editorial on the importance protecting CDC independence as did the Scientific American.
I had the honor of serving on the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) FOIA advisory Committee for the 2018-2020 term. Administered by the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which serves as the chair of the Committee, the FOIA advisory committee brings together 9 members from within the Federal government and 11 non-governmental members with FOIA expertise to “foster dialog between the Administration and the requester community, solicit public comments, and develop consensus recommendations for improving FOIA administration and proactive disclosures.” I was pleased to make real and lasting connections with the dedicated OGIS staff, agency FOIA officers and public advocates committed to making the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) work for everyone and to “ensure informed citizens, vital to the functioning of a democratic society.”
Our Final Report and Recommendations of the 2018-2020 Term of the FOIA Advisory Committee (PDF) was just released by OGIS. As can be seen by the 22 recommendations, the committee was concerned with a wide range of topics and had recommendations for NARA, DOJ’s Office of Information Policy (the executive branch lead on FOIA), executive branch agencies and Congress. There’s still a long way to go to improve FOIA – I wish we’d been stronger on issues like “release to one release to all,” ways to make FOIA searches faster, easier and more thorough for the public AND executive agencies, and collecting and making FOIA’d information more easily findable and usable. But we got started in those directions and also moved the ball forward on improving agency training, raising the profile of FOIA within agencies, expanding the use of new technologies, and strengthening the management of FOIA across the government.
Recommendations for the National Archives and Records Administration, the Office of Government Information Services, U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, and federal agencies.
Enhancing Online Access
1. We recommend that the Office of Government Information Services undertake an assessment of the information agencies make publicly available on their FOIA websites to facilitate the FOIA filing process, and for the purpose of informing further guidance by the Office of Information Policy on how agencies may improve online descriptions of the process.
2. We recommend that the Office of Information Policy issue guidance to require agencies to include records management-related materials as part of agency websites and FOIA handbooks maintained pursuant to FOIA.
3. We recommend that agencies work toward the goal of collecting, describing, and giving access to FOIA-released records in one or more central repositories in standardized ways, in addition to providing access on agency websites.
4. We recommend that the National Archives and Records Administration and the Office of Information Policy offer targeted training in selected topics in federal records management to FOIA officers and FOIA Public Liaisons in federal agencies, and otherwise include a FOIA module in selected records management training courses open to all federal employees.
5. We recommend that the Office of Information Policy issue guidance requesting agencies to provide annual mandatory FOIA training to all agency employees, as well as provide FOIA training to all new agency employees and contractors onboarding with an agency, including program-specific training if applicable. We further recommend that the Office of Government Information Services and the Office of Information Policy undertake a study of agencies’ current FOIA training requirements and content.
6. We recommend that the Office of Government Information Services and the Office of Information Policy assist agencies in establishing briefings for senior leaders during transition to a new administration or any change in senior leadership, for the purpose of providing a thorough understanding of their agency’s FOIA resources, obligations, and expectations during the FOIA process, as well as on matters of records management.
Raising the Profile of FOIA within Agencies
7. We recommend that the Office of Government Information Services and the Office of Information Policy examine the FOIA performance measures used in Agency Performance Plans and Reports to encourage agencies to include FOIA in their performance plans. We further recommend that the Office of Government Information Services submit the results of its assessment and any recommendations to Congress and the President in accordance with 5 U.S.C. § 552(h)(5).
8. We recommend that the Office of Information Policy collect information as part of each agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Report regarding standard operating procedures for the processing of FOIA requests to increase public transparency and to encourage agencies to improve their internal processes.
9. We recommend that the National Archives and Records Administration incorporate and further develop the idea of public access to federal records, including through FOIA, as part of its Federal Electronic Records Modernization Initiative.
10. We recommend that the National Archives and Records Administration and the Office of Information Policy each establish a liaison with the newly created Chief Data Officers Council for the purpose of ensuring that Council officials understand the importance of federal recordkeeping and FOIA requirements and how such laws apply to the maintenance of data within agencies.
Embracing New Technologies
11. We recommend that the Office of Information Policy provide further guidance on the use of e-discovery tools to assist agencies in meeting their obligations to conduct an adequate search of electronic records, including but not limited to email in Capstone repositories.
12. We recommend that agencies release FOIA documents to the public on their FOIA websites and in FOIA portals in open, legible, machine-readable and machine-actionable formats, to the extent feasible.
13. We recommend that agencies conduct a comprehensive review of their technological and staffing capabilities within two years to identify the resources needed to respond to current and anticipated future FOIA demands.
Providing Alternatives to FOIA Access
14. We recommend that the Office of Government Information Services and the Office of Information Policy have agencies identify common categories of records requested frequently under the FOIA and/or Privacy Act by or on behalf of individuals seeking records about themselves, for the purpose of establishing alternative processes for providing access to these records to requesters in a more efficient manner than the FOIA.
15. We recommend that agencies provide for the dissemination of information outside of FOIA, including in online databases where members of the public may access commonly requested types of documents.
Recommendations for the Chief FOIA Officers Council
16. We recommend that the Chief FOIA Officers Council create a committee for cross-agency collaboration and innovation to:
- Research and propose a cross-agency grant program and other revenue resources for FOIA programs;
- Review and promote initiatives for clear career trajectories for FOIA professionals, building on the Government Information Specialist job series and in coordination with existing agency efforts; and
- Explore and recommend models to align agency resources with a commitment to agency transparency.
17. We propose that the Chief FOIA Officers Council recommend that agency leadership annually issue a memorandum reminding the workforce of its responsibilities and obligations under FOIA and encouraging the workforce to contact the agency’s FOIA Officer for assistance with the FOIA process.
Recommendation for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency
18. We recommend that the Chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency consider designating as a cross-cutting project or priority area the issue of how successful agencies are in providing FOIA access to agency records in electronic or digital form.
Recommendations for Congress
19. We recommend that Congress engage in more regular and robust oversight of FOIA and the long-standing problems with its implementation; that Congress hold more hearings, establish a more regular and coordinated stream of communication and inquiries to agencies around FOIA issues; and that Congress strengthen the Office of Government Information Services with clearer authority and expanded resources.
20. We recommend that Congress directly address the issue of funding for FOIA offices and ensure that agencies receive and commit sufficient dedicated resources to meet their legal obligations to respond to FOIA requests in a timely manner both today and in the future.
Additional Recommendations: Looking to the Future
21. The Archivist should continue to take a leadership role in ensuring that ongoing and future federal data strategies incorporate existing FOIA access and federal recordkeeping policies.
22. The Archivist should work with other governmental components and industry in promoting research into using artificial intelligence, including machine learning technologies, to (i) improve the ability to search through government electronic record repositories for responsive records to FOIA requests and (ii) identify sensitive material for potential segregation in government records, including but not limited to material otherwise within the scope of existing FOIA exemptions and exclusions.
Unredacted, the National Security Archive’s blog, analyzed the latest annual agency FOIA report from the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), and found that the report over calculated and misrepresented the government’s release rate of FOIA requests. The FY2019 summary report said that agencies had achieved a government-wide release rate of 94.4% (up from 93.8% last year), but the Natl Security Archive’s analysis and math — when taking into account things like counting nearly entirely redacted documents as successful partial releases, and excluding more than 270,700 requests denied (often improperly) over fees, referrals, “no records” responses, and requests “improper for other reasons” — showed that a more accurate release rate calculated by the Archive and others “hovers between 50 and 60 percent.”
That’s not good. OIP and agencies across the federal government MUST do better, must conduct more efficient searches, must find more ways to proactively post documents online etc. The 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee to the National Archives (of which I’m a member) has some very good recommendations in their draft report for making FOIA better. This is the peoples’ information. While there are legitimate reasons for limiting access to *some* information (see the 9 FOIA exemptions), agencies have to stop using bureaucratic impediments to block, deter, and obfuscate the public’s right to know what their government is doing in their name.
The FY2019 summary report argues that agencies have achieved a government-wide release rate of 94.4% (up from 93.8% last year). OIP calculates that overly-generous figure by counting nearly entirely redacted documents as successful partial releases (see above for an example), and excluding more than 270,700 requests denied (often improperly) over fees, referrals, “no records” responses, and requests “improper for other reasons.” A more accurate release rate calculated by the Archive and others hovers between 50 and 60 percent.
Other highlights from the report include:
- The government received 858,952 FOIA requests in FY 2019, down slightly from FY2018’s all-time high of 863,729 requests.
- Exemption 7(c) and 7(e) account for more than 50% of all exemptions applied to denied records or portions of records.
- Backlogged requests have decreased from 130,718 in FY2018 to 120,436 in FY2019.
- As a reminder, in 2008 President Obama instructed every agency to reduce its FOIA backlog by ten percent every year. As my dear former colleague Nate Jones notes in his article, FOIA: A Colossus Under Assault, only one agency did this – the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Four agencies account for 65% of all referrals (and associated delays): DOD, DOJ, DHS, and CIA.
- The appeals backlog continues to grow – up to 5,087.
- Don’t let this deter you from appealing, though, as agencies release improperly withheld information on appeal at least a third of the time.
- Agencies reported collecting $2,547,638 in FOIA fees – totaling less than .5% of total FOIA costs. These fees are not recouped by the agency, but are instead deposited in the Treasury Department’s general fund, making it all the more frustrating to see agency’s use “fee bullying” techniques to intimidate requesters into dropping or unnecessarily narrowing their requests.
- Agencies spent nearly $38,842,948 in FOIA litigation. Put another way, agencies lost 15x as much money fighting bad FOIA decisions in court as they collected in FOIA fees.