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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.
The most recent quarterly meeting of NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee (of which I’m a member) occurred last friday (12/6/19). You can watch the entire meeting as it was live-streamed on NARA’s YouTube channel (below).
I consider myself fortunate to be able to work with this committee — 1/2 of its members are FOIA officers at federal agencies, and 1/2 are from various parts of the requester community: academics, lawyers, FOIA activists and myself the lone librarian. The committee works to identify challenges that exist with the FOIA and then issues official recommendations to improve FOIA at the end of each term. For the 2018-2020 term, the committee has broken out into three subcommittees — Records Management (of which I’m a member), Time/Volume, and Vision — and we’ve been working diligently on recommendations for our final report. You can see in the links below what each of the subcommittees has chosen to focus in on to make FOIA better.
The committee is currently working on quite a few sticky issues, not least of which are “release to one release to all” — which was developed by the Obama administration in 2016 but is still “under consideration” by the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice — as well as the 2 issues closest to my librarian heart, a central FOIA repository and FOIA documents in both human-readable and machine-actionable formats (draft recommendations 8 and 9 of the records management subcommittee).
- Time/Volume Subcommittee Proposed Recommendations to the 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee
- Records Management Subcommittee Proposed Recommendations # 8 and 9 to the 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee
- Vision Subcommittee Proposed Recommendations to the 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee
- FOIA Officer Survey Results DRAFT – December 4, 2019
- FOIA Requester Survey Results DRAFT – December 4, 2019
I’d like to give a shout-out to tireless public open government advocate Alex Howard (formerly from Sunlight Foundation) who has shown up at each of our meetings and has given substantive input, comments and critiques during the public comment portion of each meeting and via live-blog and twitter during each meeting. We should have more advocates like Alex who not only keeps the government’s feet to the open-government fire but also gives positive, actionable policy and technical advice to achieve real advances in FOIA and government transparency generally.
In December 2016, President Obama also ordered the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make FOIA a “cross agency priority” goal. Unfortunately, the Trump administration removed the Cross Agency Priority Goal for FOIA on Performance.gov without notice.
An administration that’s serious about improving public access to our records and being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and public information would restore said goal, perhaps as a commitment in some sort of comprehensive “national action plan on open government.”
While the FOIA Advisory Committee is full of people working in good faith to improve how sunshine in government works for the public, this administration has reversed or neglected many of the open government policies or programs of the past decade and weaponized transparency through selective disclosures.
As has been the case for years, it falls to Congress to perform oversight of the FOIA and ensure that public access to public information continues to improve through implementation of the FOIA reforms President Obama signed into law in December 2016 and the open government bill President Trump signed into law in January 2019.
The Archivist of the US (AOTUS) released NARA’s plan for a Digital Preservation Framework consisting of a “Risk and Prioritization Matrix” and 15 File Format Preservation Action Plans. NARA is asking that the public submit comments on NARA’s GitHub site through November 1, 2019.
In particular, we are hoping to get feedback on the following topics:
- What revisions can you suggest to the proposed processing and preservation actions for the formats?
- Are the Essential Characteristics for each record type comprehensive enough for digital preservation?
- Are the proposed preservation actions for the formats technically appropriate?
- Are there appropriate tools for processing and preservation of specific formats that we do not have listed?
- What can you suggest in terms of appropriate public access versions of the formats?
- Are there other formats we haven’t identified that need plans?
You can use the issues feature in Github to leave a comment or question or start a discussion. Read more about how to contribute here. So, go ahead, start digging in to your favorite file format and tell NARA your thoughts.
Today NARA is releasing the entirety of our digital preservation framework for public comment. This digital preservation framework consists of our approach to determining risks faced by electronic files, and our plans for preserving different types of file formats. The public is encouraged to join the discussion, September 16 through November 1, 2019, on GitHub.
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.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) submits comment to NARA re Dept of Interior records schedule request
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) just sent me a PDF copy of the comment that they submitted to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regarding the Department of Interior records schedule request. This letter, combined with the others from DLF, transparency organizations, and Stanford Libraries offers a finely grained analysis of the overall problem and suggestions for moving forward in making the scheduling process much more transparent and in understanding and preserving important government records. Many thanks to these organizations and the many others who submitted comments.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding the earth: its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. On behalf of our over 3 million members and online activists, NRDC submits the following comments regarding the Department of the Interior’s proposed updates to its records schedule, DAA-0048-2015-0003. See Notice of availability of proposed records schedules, 83 Fed. Reg. 45,979, 45,980 (Sept. 11, 2018). NRDC also joins the letter submitted by the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. We appreciate the willingness of the National Archives and Records Administration to work with interested parties and extend the comment period to permit public inspection of Interior’s retention policy for such vital records.
The proposed schedule covers records that are central to the public’s understanding of the Department of the Interior’s (“Interior’s”) stewardship of our nation’s public lands and natural resources. Moreover, it encompasses records of activities that might have long-lasting or permanent implications for both human health and the environment. But the proposed schedule permits some records to be destroyed while they may still be substantially valuable to the public, while other retention policies are too vague to assess their impact. Moreover, the high publicity and comprehensive nature of Interior’s schedule change highlights shortcomings in NARA’s approval process for agency records schedules. Interior’s records schedule should be amended to ensure that valuable records are preserved for public inspection.