We Make Access Happen: FOIA Q&A with OGIS Director Alina M. Semo
By Victoria Macchi | National Archives News
WASHINGTON, March 14, 2023 — Sunshine Week (March 12-18) marks the moment every year when researchers, journalists, non-profit groups, and the people who make access to federal records happen spread the word about the importance of open access to public information.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which provides a right of access to federal records, is an important tool for viewing government information.
When Congress amended the FOIA in 2007, it created the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which is part of the National Archives.
This part of the agency is tasked with reviewing FOIA policies, procedures, and compliance across federal agencies, and also with resolving FOIA disputes between federal agencies and requesters.
OGIS Director Alina M. Semo shares with National Archives News why Sunshine Week is important at the National Archives, what FOIA is, and how the National Archives makes access happen in light of so many requests for information.
Why does the National Archives get involved in Sunshine Week?
Given our agency mission—to provide access to high-value government records—and our strategic goal of making access happen, there is a natural symbiosis for the National Archives to not only participate in Sunshine Week but to be a leader in the open government initiative. This year in particular, Sunshine Week provides the National Archives and Records Administration an opportunity to shed light on our mission and what we do, how we do the work, and how the public can find records and information.
What are some aspects of FOIA that surprise people?
It may be surprising to some people that there is a law that allows for—and even encourages—the public to gain access to information from the federal government.
As the Supreme Court explained in 1978 in NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., “[t]he basic purpose of [the] FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed." (437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978)). The FOIA is often explained as a means for citizens to know what their government is doing.
Although FOIA has been around for more than 56 years, it isn’t necessarily something that is taught in history or civics classes (although it should be). Just having a basic understanding of this tool is valuable. The results it can produce can be surprising! It is also important to differentiate between the FOIA and the Privacy Act, which is a separate law that provides individuals with a means by which to seek access to and amendment of their records. My office has written several blog posts about understanding the differences between the two.
FOIA Ombudsman blog posts on the intersection of FOIA and Privacy Act
Also, the premise of requesting and then receiving records from the government sounds simple, but there are a lot of nuances and some complexity in administering FOIA. While we hear about agencies’ growing backlogs of FOIA requests, and that requesters can sometimes wait months or even years until they are able to get records, it may also be a surprise that a number of agencies are able to turn around and respond to a large number of requests in a matter of days. The 15 Cabinet-level federal departments and 105 independent agencies received nearly a million requests in FY 2022 and processed almost 900,000.
Do I need to file a FOIA request for every record I want?
No. Many records are already available online on agencies’ websites and in electronic reading rooms. In addition, many federal agencies proactively disclose records and reports for the public. It is always best to first search online for the materials before filing a FOIA request.
What can someone do if they are having trouble getting information from an agency?
If a FOIA request has been filed with an agency and the requester has not received a response within 20 working days (30 working days if the agency has determined that unusual circumstances exist), then they can reach out to the agency’s FOIA Public Liaison (FPL) to seek assistance. Every agency has a designated FPL, and they are the most familiar with their agency’s records. Generally, an agency will provide an initial response to the requester within the 20-day period and seek to clarify or perfect the request to ensure they have the records the requester seeks. Requesters can ask for an estimated date of completion (EDC), which agencies are required by law to provide upon request. OGIS recommends always asking the agency for an EDC. If an agency is not responding to a requester who has asked for an EDC, the requester can ask OGIS for assistance.
We know that many agencies have quite a backlog of requests that are processed in the order in which they are received. OGIS helps requesters understand how the process works. During the first quarter of this fiscal year (FY 2023), OGIS received 1,170 requests for assistance and our Mediation Team was able to close 99.5 percent of those requests within 90 days.
What FOIA training is available to FOIA professionals, journalists, and the broader public?
Since OGIS opened in 2009, we have trained hundreds of FOIA professionals in Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals. After the pandemic moved training online, we have offered training for FOIA professionals in negotiating with requesters.
We leave the technical legal training to the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice, which offers a range of training to federal employees on the legal and administrative aspects of the FOIA statute. Both OGIS’s and OIP’s websites, along with www.foia.gov, contain a number of helpful resources. There are many non-profit organizations that offer training on an ongoing basis. In addition, public programs (like the one offered by the National Archives on March 13) are another way that people can learn more about what FOIA is and how it is useful for the public.
Can people make suggestions on how to improve the FOIA process?
Yes! We have several avenues for people to reach us and offer feedback.
First is the FOIA Advisory Committee, which is a federal advisory group that was established in 2014. It is composed of 10 government and 10 non-government individuals who are FOIA experts. The Committee meets quarterly to foster dialogue between the executive branch and the requester community, solicit public comments, and develop consensus recommendations for improving FOIA administration and proactive disclosures. We have posted a large number of comments on our website. Instructions on how to submit comments are outlined on our website. These sessions are open to the public and live streamed on YouTube.
OGIS also hosts an annual Open Meeting and solicits oral and written comments for the meeting.
We frequently share information on our blog, The FOIA Ombudsman, and on Twitter @FOIA_Ombuds.
We encourage the public to monitor what we share and provide feedback through our public comments portal.