About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for Chief FOIA Officers Council

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States and it is my pleasure to welcome to the second meeting this year of the Chief Freedom of Information Act—FOIA—Officers Council.

It’s hard to believe that we are 20 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which has challenged all of us in ways hardly imaginable when Congress established the Chief FOIA Officers Council with passage of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.

While the Council was created five years ago, it was the OPEN Government Act of 2007 that established the role of Chief FOIA Officer, mandating that each agency designate a senior official to oversee and ensure FOIA compliance and efficiency. Here at the National Archives, that person is our General Counsel, Gary M. Stern.

Like many Chief FOIA Officers across the government, Gary has faced enormous and unique challenges since the pandemic began in March 2020. Here at the National Archives and Records Administration, a large percentage of FOIA requests we receive seek access to records that exist in paper—the vast majority of them archival records created by executive branch agencies and the White House, deemed permanent, and transferred to the legal custody of the National Archives.

The pandemic forced full or partial closure of all of the NARA offices that process FOIA requests. At the National Personnel Records Center, although we had to reduce our on-site capacity, we never fully closed, continuing to process emergency requests from veterans. NPRC is starting to ramp up its staffing again to address the backlog of FOIA requests and recently began operating around the clock to ensure veterans and their families get records they need for medical treatment, burials, and other services.

Despite those unprecedented challenges, I am proud of the FOIA work accomplished during the pandemic under Gary’s leadership as Chief FOIA Officer. The National Archives adjusted staff work priorities to best position these offices to continue to facilitate access to NARA’s records. To that end, some of the staff in these offices were issued laptops and given access to additional software to allow them to conduct searches and complete redactions where possible.

The archival FOIA processing offices focused on identifying records, preparing files, and creating descriptions for records of great public interest that had previously been available only in paper format for access through the National Archives Catalog. Staff in these offices also spent time updating or creating processing guidance.

We at the National Archives acknowledge that closure of Federal Records Centers due to circumstances well beyond our control has affected FOIA programs throughout the government even as FRC staff have responded to emergency requests for records throughout the pandemic. I appreciate your patience during these unprecedented times and am pleased to report that our centers are gradually resuming operations based on local public health conditions and specific safety criteria.

With that, I wish the Chief FOIA Officers Council a Happy Fifth Anniversary. I look forward to hearing reports today from the Technology Committee and the Committee on Cross-Agency Collaboration and Innovation. The important work of both committees ties directly to the statutory mandate that the Chief FOIA Officer of each agency monitor FOIA implementation and ensure efficient compliance.

Before I turn the meeting back over to Alina Semo, I invite you all to join me tomorrow afternoon—Thursday November 18 at 5:00 pm Eastern Time—for a book talk sponsored by the National Archives Foundation. Law Professor Margaret Kwoka will join longtime FOIA champion and FOIA Advisory Committee member Tom Susman in conversation about Professor Kwoka’s new book “Saving the Freedom of Information Act.” I look forward to an interesting and rich discussion, and hope that you will join us. Details are at archivesfoundation.org.

Thank you. Over to you, Alina.