Improving the Process of Administering FOIA – InfoToday.com

The first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee meeting of 2017 took place at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) headquarters on Jan. 26. This committee, run by the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), consists of 10 members chosen from within the federal government and 10 nongovernmental members with FOIA expertise, including historians, lawyers, journalists, academics, and staffers from not-for-profit organizations that advocate on FOIA issues. At last winter’s meeting, on Jan. 19, 2016, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero announced that he was renewing the committee’s charter for an additional 2-year term so that it might continue its work of helping OGIS (the federal FOIA ombudsman) as it reviews “FOIA policies, procedures and compliance of Federal agencies and [identifies] ways to improve compliance.”

Supporting the committee’s functions are three subcommittees that report their work and findings to the full committee at these quarterly meetings. The importance of subcommittee work cannot be ignored: During the last term, research conducted by the Fees Subcommittee resulted in recommendations that state, “The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) [will] revise its fee guidance to reflect technological changes in the public’s ability to disseminate information.” At the Oct. 25, 2016, meeting, the committee reviewed the results of an earlier brainstorming session to determine themes and topics on which it could have the greatest impact, and it decided that the three subcommittees for this term would be Proactive Disclosure, Efficiency and Resources, and Searches.

The Jan. 26, 2017, meeting was the first to be chaired by the new OGIS director, Alina Semo, who replaced James Holzer when he resigned after only 9 months in office. Her experience in NARA’s Office of General Counsel and the FBI’s FOIA Litigation Unit can help the committee appreciate the legal perspective, but nongovernmental members on the committee will have to voice and explain the experiences of FOIA requesters.

When asked about her expectations for the committee’s 2016–2018 term, Semo remarked, “The Committee has great potential for collaboration between representatives of the requester community and federal employees who are experts in FOIA. My hope is that, through the three subcommittees, the committee will be able to reach consensus solutions to FOIA’s biggest hurdles.” Her goal is “to ensure that each of the subcommittees has a plan for addressing their respective subject matter issues and that they continue to make progress towards a final committee work product that can be presented to the Archivist of the United States.”

After approval of the minutes from the Oct. 25 meeting, each of the three subcommittees presented updates to the full committee, highlighting the work it intends to accomplish during this term.

The Proactive Disclosure Subcommittee Report

The Proactive Disclosure Subcommittee plans to build on the work of the last term, focusing on how agencies recognize records for proactive disclosure and identifying case studies for best practices, especially in terms of the innovative use of technology and Section 508 compliance for accessibility when posting documents to the web. Agencies often want to put documents online, but they are reluctant to do so because of concerns that they will not comply with Section 508 standards. By the end of this term, the subcommittee is determined to issue a report providing advice and indicating what other agencies are doing to comply with Section 508 standards. Subcommittee member Nate Jones, director of the FOIA Project at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, doesn’t want to let Section 508 standards scare any agency from posting documents. Presenting what other agencies are doing vis-à-vis Section 508 can help them make good decisions. Initial discussions are underway with five agencies in the hopes of developing a set of concrete proposals and actions.

The subcommittee invited Phil Ashlock, chief architect at Data.gov, to speak to the group about how the site has become “the implementation arm of … open data and open government policies.” Initially, agencies posted high-priority datasets to Data.gov as a convenient way of getting them out to the public. Since 2013, Data.gov has been “going to each agency’s website to pull that metadata” for all data assets, including the nonpublic datasets. This allows agencies to be proactive in ensuring that their “data sets were included in that inventory … discoverable through data.gov, and search engines as well.” There is a quarterly review process and a dashboard for tracking the status of how agencies are implementing the open data policy as well as the quality of associated metadata. Ashlock noted that aligning to a common metadata standard is more difficult than one would think, and Data.gov does not want this to become an excuse for agencies to fail in expeditiously uploading data. (It’s also true that some agencies may find it difficult to host data without relying on contractors.)

Data.gov continues to help by notifying agencies of broken links and providing additional mechanisms for feedback for members of the public who are seeking a particular dataset or reporting a problem with a dataset. Ashlock highlighted the innovative Demand-Driven Open Data site from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which encourages researchers to request data by indicating how they are going to use it—potentially in ways not thought of before. 

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