Fact Sheet: New Steps Toward Ensuring Openness and Transparency in Government
In conjunction with President Obama signing the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, the Administration is taking new steps to build on a record of openness and transparency
Since day one of his Administration, President Obama has sent a clear message about the need for greater transparency and openness in government. On his first full day in office, the President issued a memorandum directing that, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), agencies should adopt a presumption of openness. As the President said, “In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” Over the past seven and a half years, the Administration has made good on this promise, processing more than 4.6 million requests under FOIA, releasing unparalleled numbers of datasets to the public, and making it easier for citizens to access information from their government.
In conjunction with the President signing the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, today the Administration is announcing additional steps to build on this record of success.
NEW ACTIONS TO MAKE FOIA WORK BETTER FOR CITIZENS
The Administration is taking a number of steps to further the progress made since 2009, ensuring that this Administration’s track record of openness is institutionalized throughout government and carries forward for years to come.
Utilizing the Chief FOIA Officers Council and FOIA Advisory Committee to address FOIA’s greatest challenges. The FOIA Improvement Act formalizes DOJ’s existing meetings of Federal Chief FOIA Officers to form a new Chief FOIA Officers Council. The President is tasking the Chief FOIA Officers Council to identify and address the biggest difficulties that exist in administering FOIA across government. In order to begin work immediately on this critical task, the Administration is announcing today that new Council will hold its first meeting on July 22, 2016. In addition, the high-level officials that comprise the Council are charged with working with stakeholders inside and outside of government, including the FOIA Advisory Committee that was created by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in May 2014.
Today, the Administration is also announcing new members for the FOIA Advisory Committee’s 2016-2018 term. The Administration is asking these members to look broadly at the challenges that agency FOIA programs will face in light of an ever-increasing volume of electronic records, and chart a course for how FOIA should operate in the future. NARA is announcing today that it will hold the first meeting of the Committee’s new term on July 21, 2016.
Promoting broader release of records through a “release to one is a release to all” presumption. In July 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a 6-month pilot program with seven volunteer Federal agencies to assess the viability of a policy that would direct agencies to proactively post online their FOIA responses. This concept would ensure that all citizens—not just those making a request—have access to information released under FOIA. Over the course of the pilot, DOJ worked with participating agencies to capture metrics on the time and resources associated with implementing this policy, as well as any impacts on interested stakeholders. The President is directing the newly established Chief FOIA Officers Council to consider the lessons learned from the DOJ pilot program and work to develop a Federal Government policy establishing a “release to one is a release to all” presumptive standard for Federal agencies when releasing records under FOIA. The Chief FOIA Officers Council will examine issues critical to this policy’s implementation, including assessing the impact on investigative journalism efforts, as well as how best to address technological and resource challenges. By January 1, 2017, the Chief FOIA Officers Council will work with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to provide further guidance as it relates to this presumption.
Launching a centralized FOIA request portal. In October 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched FOIAonline as a shared-service FOIA case-management system and request portal, now used by 12 agencies. In December 2013, the Administration built on this initial effort by committing to launching a consolidated FOIA request portal in the second U.S. Open Government National Action Plan (NAP), and recommitted to that effort in the third NAP issued in October 2015 as part of a larger expansion of the services offered by DOJ on FOIA.gov. Today, the Administration is announcing that DOJ will work with OMB, EPA, and other agencies to launch a consolidated FOIA request portal in 2017. This portal will initially provide for centralized submission of requests and will continue to be enhanced to include other features to guide requesters through the FOIA process, improve the public’s ability to locate already posted information, and track requests online, among other functions. The Administration will announce further details about the functionality of the portal and the timeline for launching its initial phases in the coming months.
New guidance on open government principles and actions. To reaffirm the President’s commitment to transparency and open government, and its importance for the long-term operations of government, OMB, in coordination with DOJ, will issue new guidance later this year that will advance open government principles related to transparency and FOIA, including the implementation of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. This guidance will ensure the establishment and operation of a unified, citizen-centric FOIA request portal and promote standards for interoperability to facilitate agency adoption and participation. OMB is also announcing today the creation of a Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goal for FOIA, that will be co-led by OMB, DOJ, and NARA, to focus senior leadership attention and drive performance and accountability for improving the way in which FOIA requests are administered, and ensure that Federal departments and agencies are providing sufficient resources toward FOIA responsibilities. The new CAP goal will be publicly posted on Performance.gov, and will have a detailed action plan, including specific metrics and milestones that will be used to gauge progress. To maintain focus on implementation, each quarter, OMB will review progress on these goals and will update Performance.gov with the latest results.
FOIA IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2016
In addition to taking the further actions described above, today the President signed into law the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016—nearly 50 years after the original FOIA was signed into law by President Johnson. This critical legislation reflects the progress made by the Administration, codifies a number of openness and transparency principles and actions that the President has promoted since his first full day in office, and ensures that progress over the past seven-and-a-half years will be institutionalized throughout government and carried forward for years to come.
Among the improvements to existing efforts, the new law:
- Reinforces the foreseeable harm standard established by the Attorney General in 2009, which requires that agencies release information unless “the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption” or “disclosure is prohibited by law”;
- Builds on the Administration’s previously-announced efforts to create a consolidated online FOIA request portal, which today’s announcement makes clear will launch in 2017;
- Codifies longstanding DOJ guidance that agencies make records and documents available to requesters in an electronic format and post online records that are requested three or more times;
- Formalizes DOJ’s existing meetings of Federal Chief FOIA Officers that will form a Chief FOIA Officers Council to develop recommendations for increasing compliance and efficiency in responding to FOIA requests, and to identify, develop and coordinate initiatives for increasing transparency and compliance with FOIA’s requirements;
- Codifies best practices from DOJ and NARA for agencies to notify requesters who receive an adverse determination on a request that the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) is available to offer mediation services to resolve disputes between agencies and FOIA requesters;
- Sets a minimum of 90 days for requesters to file FOIA appeals; and
- Establishes that “the deliberative process privilege shall not apply to records created 25 years or more before the date on which the records were requested.”
The Administration appreciates the bipartisan effort in Congress to enact this legislation, and looks forward to implementing it without delay.
A RECORD OF PROGRESS
The new legislative and administrative actions outlined above build on seven and a half years of work undertaken by this Administration to drive openness and transparency in government. Notable steps include:
Releasing historic amounts of information
- Processing more than 4 million FOIA requests. This Administration has released more information in response to FOIA requests than any prior Administration. To date, Federal agencies have processed more than 4,600,000 FOIA requests since the start of Fiscal Year 2009. In that time, agencies have received more than 4,580,000 requests. In processing these requests, the government has every year achieved a release rate of above 91 percent. And when exemptions were used to protect information, the reason cited most often by agencies was for protection of personal privacy. Read more.
- Making more than 180,000 Federal datasets and collections available to students, entrepreneurs, and the public. In May 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order and policy guidance on making open and machine readable data the new default for government information. To date, more than 180,000 Federal datasets and collections have been made available on Data.gov. The release of these datasets and collections have been coupled with active outreach and thematic events such as Health and Energy “Datapaloozas,” so that data and tools are in hands of innovators, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and communities working together to develop new tools and solutions. The Administration has increased public access to the results of Federally funded scientific research, with more than 4 million full-text journal articles and growing volumes of scientific research data now free and accessible to the public via agency-designated repositories. Read more, more, and more.
- Working to make more discretionary disclosures. To carry out the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines, agencies have worked to identify opportunities to make discretionary releases of information where a FOIA exemption might otherwise apply. For example, the FBI continues to release information with historical value that could otherwise be protected by the FOIA's law enforcement exemptions, such as information about counterintelligence operations and records of discussion about whether to prosecute Alger Hiss for espionage and perjury. In response to several requests for information about American families’ unsuccessful attempts to adopt children in Vietnam, the Department of State released deliberative material to bring greater transparency to the consular and Department officers’ decision-making process. The Department of Defense also reported in 2015 that 62 percent of components made discretionary releases, which is more than any year since 2009. Read more, more, more, and more.
- Proactively releasing electronically filed nonprofit tax forms. In June 2016, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) began releasing publicly available data from more than one million electronically filed tax forms of nonprofits. Now the public can access these data directly from the IRS in a machine-readable format rather than filing a FOIA request and receiving a non-machine-readable image file. Read more.
Building new online tools to make FOIA easier to navigate
- Creating FOIA.gov as a centralized FOIA resource. FOIA.gov allows the public to learn about how the FOIA works and search for already posted material across the government, making it easier and faster to find information without the need to make a request. FOIA.gov also sheds light on agency FOIA compliance by allowing the public to sort and compare Annual FOIA Report metrics such as the number of requests received and processed each year. The site includes contact information for agency FOIA offices and highlights significant FOIA releases. The Administration will continue to add functionality to FOIA.gov in the coming months as it launches a centralized FOIA request portal. Read more.
- Launching FOIAonline as a shared-service FOIA case-management system and public-facing portal. FOIAonline also tracks the progress of FOIA requests, allows users to search for information previously made available by participating agencies, and generates reports on FOIA processing. Twelve agencies or components currently use FOIAonline. The Administration will build on this initial shared service as it works to develop a centralized FOIA request portal on FOIA.gov. Read more and more.
- Creating the first FOIA mobile application. In July 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched a new mobile FOIA application for requesters using smartphones and tablets to file requests with DHS. The app allows users to submit requests and check their status in addition to accessing all of the content on the DHS FOIA website. Read more.
Revising government policies to promote openness
- Elevating transparency and openness as guiding principles for Federal agencies. On the first day of his Administration, the President issued a memorandum calling on all agencies to work together to create “an unprecedented level of openness” in government and to “establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” An Open Government Directive and a plan for implementing those goals were issued in December 2009. Read more, more, and more.
- Establishing the presumption of openness. In addition to the Presidential Memorandum on openness and transparency, on his first full day in office the President also issued a Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act that directed all agencies to administer FOIA with a clear presumption of openness, noting that, in the face of doubt, openness prevails. Read more.
- Directing records to be released unless agencies can identify a foreseeable harm. On March 19, 2009, the Attorney General issued new FOIA Guidelines directing agencies to make discretionary disclosures of information and to only withhold information in response to a FOIA request if the agency can identify a foreseeable harm. These FOIA Guidelines also stressed the importance of using technology, improving efficiency, making records available proactively, and responding to requests promptly. Read more.
- Increasing agency accountability. DOJ has instituted two new FOIA reporting requirements that increased agency accountability for FOIA administration. Since 2010, agency Chief FOIA Officers have been required to annually report on their efforts to implement the presumption of openness, improve their FOIA operations and facilitate information disclosure. These reports have added a wealth of information about agencies' FOIA programs that was never available before. Additionally, since 2013, agencies have been required to report certain key FOIA statistics such as the numbers of requests received, processed, and backlogged on a quarterly basis. Read more and more.
- Promoting good customer service and proactive disclosures. DOJ has issued several articles of guidance since 2009 that emphasize the importance of agencies improving communication with requesters and focusing on good customer service. Additionally, in 2015, DOJ issued guidance on making information available without the need to file a FOIA request, encouraging agencies to systematically post material of interest to the public even before receipt of one request. Read more, more, more, and more.
- Professionalizing the FOIA career field. In March 2012, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) designated a new civil service personnel category for FOIA professionals, allowing individuals working in FOIA to join the specialized Government Information Series career track to recognize the professional nature of their work. Read more and more.
- Developing a FOIA Best Practices series. Since May 2014, DOJ has hosted FOIA Best Practices Workshops for agencies and requesters to identify areas where successful strategies in FOIA administration can be leveraged across the government. DOJ captures those practices and related resources in a central online place. Read more and more.
- Generating comprehensive online FOIA training resources. In March 2015, DOJ released a suite of electronic FOIA training resources for all Federal Government employees to assist them in understanding their responsibilities under this important law. From a specialized briefing video for senior executives emphasizing the importance of leading and supporting this work, to a one-pager that covers all the basics for every Federal employee so they know how FOIA affects them, to in-depth modules for agency FOIA professionals, these training resources are being used and further adapted across agencies. Read more and more.
Engaging the public
- Engaging in significant outreach with the FOIA requester community. Throughout this Administration, DOJ, NARA, and individual agencies have engaged in extensive outreach with the requester community through formal and informal mechanisms. For example, DOJ has hosted large events such as Requester Town Halls and FOIA Best Practices Series workshops, as well as smaller events co-sponsored with NARA such as Requester Roundtables. NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee meetings are open to the public and live-streamed, and OGIS regularly joins informal meetings with requesters. Both agencies meet with requester stakeholders through the development and implementation of FOIA commitments in the Open Government National Action Plans. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) hosted a Partner’s Day that opened a dialogue with FOIA requesters, business submitters, and agency staff about the FOIA process. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reached out to large document-retrieval companies that are frequent requesters to provide training and guidance on making requests. Read more, more, more, and more.
- Establishing a FOIA Ombudsman. In September 2009, the OGIS opened its doors, offering mediation services to resolve FOIA disputes between requesters and agencies and to review agencies’ FOIA policies, procedures, and compliance. Created by the FOIA amendments in 2007, this office within NARA did not exist prior to this Administration. To date, OGIS has assisted more than 5,000 customers from all 50 states and 22 countries, provided FOIA dispute resolution training to more than 700 FOIA professionals in nearly 60 agencies, and reviewed FOIA compliance in six FOIA offices. Read more, more, and more.
- Celebrating Sunshine Week. This Administration has embraced and recognized Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government transparency. In 2015, the White House hosted its first Sunshine Week event with a workshop to generate ideas for the 2015 Open Government National Action Plan. DOJ and NARA have hosted and participated in Sunshine Week events, such as the annual DOJ Sunshine Week Celebration and NARA’s Sunshine Week at the National Archives event. DOJ’s celebrations of Sunshine Week, which began in 2010, have included keynote addresses from the Attorney General and Associate Attorney General that have emphasized the principles of open government. Read more, more, and more.
- Forming the first Federal Advisory Committee for FOIA. In May 2014, NARA created the FOIA Advisory Committee to foster dialog between the Administration and the requester community, solicit public comments, and develop consensus recommendations for improving FOIA administration and proactive disclosures. Committee membership is equally divided between representatives of the FOIA requester community and agency FOIA professionals, and meetings are open to the public. During its first term, the FOIA Advisory Committee examined important issues related to the administration of FOIA, including making recommendations regarding revising FOIA fees. Today the Administration announced that the Committee will begin its second term with a meeting on July 21, 2016. The Administration will ask the new members for the 2016-2018 term to look more broadly at the challenges that agency FOIA programs are expected to face with an ever-increasing volume of electronic records, and chart a course for how FOIA should operate over the next 20 years. Read more, more, and more.
- Opening up problem solving and engaging citizen solvers through increased use of incentive prizes, citizen science, and crowdsourcing. Since 2010, more than 80 Federal agencies have engaged 250,000 Americans through more than 700 challenges on Challenge.gov to address tough problems ranging from fighting Ebola, to decreasing the cost of solar energy, to blocking illegal robocalls. These competitions have made more than $220 million available to entrepreneurs and innovators and have led to the formation of over 275 startup companies with over $70 million in follow-on funding, creating over 1,000 new jobs. The Administration has expanded opportunities, including those efforts listed on CitizenScience.gov, for research agencies to work with citizen scientists and use crowdsourcing approaches. For example, Federal agencies have used these approaches to improve predictive models for coastal change and vulnerability to extreme storms, and to tag millions of archival records for the National Archives. Read more, more, and more.
- Advancing the Open Government Partnership. President Obama helped to launch the global Open Government Partnership with seven other countries in September 2011, with the aim of promoting transparency and innovation, empowering citizens, fighting corruption, and transforming the ways in which governments use technology and other tools to serve and engage with their citizens. The partnership has now expanded to nearly 70 governments and hundreds of civil society organizations, and participating governments have made more than 2,500 commitments to be more open and accountable to their citizens. Read more.