Chief FOIA Officers Council Meeting (Virtual Event)
Wednesday, October 14, 2020
10 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. (ET)
EVENT PRODUCER: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome and thank you for joining today's Chief FOIA Officers Council annual meeting. Before we begin, please ensure you have opened the chat panel by using the associated icon located at the bottom of your screen. Please note all audio lines have been muted until the Q & A portion of the meeting. You are welcome to submit written questions throughout the meeting which will be addressed at the Q & A session of the meeting.
To submit a written question, select “all panelists” from the dropdown menu in the chat panel, then enter your message in the message box provided and send. As a reminder, this conference is being recorded. If you require technical assistance, please send a chat to the event producer. With that, I will turn the meeting over to Alina Semo, Director, Office of Government Information Services. Alina, please go ahead.
ALINA M. SEMO: All right. Thanks, Michelle. Good morning, everyone and thank you for joining us today for our very first ever virtual Chief FOIA Officers Council meeting and possibly not our last. I hope everyone has been staying healthy, safe, and well. I am Alina Semo, Director of the Office of Government Information Services, and co-chair of the Council. Let me introduce my co-chair, Bobby Talebian, Director of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: Thank you, Alina. It's a pleasure to be here with everyone today. Welcome and thank you for joining us.
ALINA M. SEMO: We will be hearing again from Bobby shortly with some opening remarks on behalf of the Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General who unfortunately could not join us today. We have a full agenda today. In a minute, you will hear welcoming remarks from Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero. Bobby will provide a brief introduction on behalf of the Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General, Claire Murray. He will provide a few updates. Followed by a presentation from me about some updates on the FOIA Advisory Committee.
We will be soliciting volunteers among our federal audience for the formation of a new Committee, so please stay tuned for that. We will also be inviting questions and discussion at the midpoint of our presentation today. You will definitely want to stay tuned in for a lively presentation from the co-chairs of the Technology Committee, Eric Stein and Michael Sarich.
We have reserved time at the end of today's session to receive public comments. We will be opening the telephone lines at the end of our meeting for any oral questions and comments from our non-government friends and colleagues. We are monitoring the chat on WebEx and we will read out loud any substantive questions or comments. We're also simultaneously livestreaming today's training on the NARA YouTube channel and we'll also read out loud any substantive questions or comments. With that, I would like to introduce Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, for some welcome remarks. David, over to you.
DAVID S. FERRIERO: Thanks, Alina. Good morning and welcome from 700 Pennsylvania Avenue where we would ordinarily be meeting, and I look forward to the time when we do actually welcome you to this building again. I'm proud of the role that the National Archives plays in this important government-wide Council of senior officials tasked with ensuring FOIA compliance. As many of you in attendance know, the Federal FOIA Ombudsman's Office is housed right here in the National Archives where every day, OGIS staff work to make access happen and connect with customers.
The timing and agenda for today's meeting form a nice confluence. Fifty-five years ago, this week, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to amend the Administrative Procedure Act by clarifying and protecting the right of the public to information. As Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana noted on the Senate floor on October 13th, 1965, “the balance between disclosing and withholding government information is not easy... Success,” he said, “lies in providing a workable formula which encompasses balances and protects all interests, yet places emphasis on the fullest responsible disclosure.” The bill would go on to pass the House in June 1966, and the next month, FOIA was signed into law.
Fifty-five years after the Senate passed the original FOIA, the challenge of balancing openness and secrecy continues. Added to the mix are the unpresented challenges of COVID-19 and the telework environment in which many of you and your agency's FOIA processing staff members have been operating. No doubt many of you have not been to your government offices since early March.
Later this morning, we will hear an inter-agency discussion about success and challenges to FOIA processing during the COVID pandemic, challenges that certainly weren't foreseen when the Council last met in 2019. I look forward to a discussion by the Chief FOIA Officers Council regarding one of the 22 recommendations that the FOIA Advisory Committee sent to me earlier this year. The Advisory Committee now its fourth term is composed of government professionals and members of the requester community whom I appoint to study the federal FOIA landscape and advise me on improvements to FOIA administration.
Recommendation 16, which I support, is for the Chief FOIA Officers Council to create a committee of cross-agency collaboration and innovation. I look forward to the committee's creation today and collaborative and innovative work in the coming months. Collaboration and innovation are key to giving senior leaders and their staff the tools they need to meet Senator Mansfield's definition of success, balancing all interests while emphasizing responsible disclosure. Please take care and stay safe. I now turn the meeting back to Bobby Talebian.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: Thank you, Mr. Ferriero. Very much appreciate that. Thank you all again for joining and congratulations to all the agencies on closing our fiscal year 20. I wanted to pass along the regards of the Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General of the United States, Ms. Claire Murray, who very much wanted to be here to kick off our first meeting in the new fiscal year.
The Department of Justice, as you know, takes very seriously our role in encouraging government-wide compliance with the FOIA. And as the Chief FOIA Officer of the Department, the Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General appreciates the challenges Chief FOIA Officers face in managing high volumes of requests that have become increasingly complex and while also managing new workplace precautions and realities. The department's FOIA guidelines stress and experience has proven the important leadership role Chief FOIA Officers play in the success of FOIA administration.
That is why the work of this Council is so important to help us ensure that agencies are making use of all available resources to improve FOIA administration and that we together find new ways to enhance our ability to provide this vital service to our democracy. Ms. Murray would like to thank all agencies that are joining us for today and for your continued efforts in advancing government wide FOIA administration. I just want to thank Ms. Murray for her message and her continued support.
With that, I have some updates that I wanted to provide from OIP on some of the work that we're doing and the resources available to agencies. Let's start with the next slide. I thought I'd just highlight some reporting updates, initiatives of FOIA.gov, and make sure to highlight the resources available to your agencies from OIP to help in your FOIA administration. Next slide.
Starting off with FOIA reporting. Next slide. Just this last summer, we concluded the 2020 reporting season by issuing our Summary and Assessment of the 2020 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. This Summary and Assessment reflects a number of key milestones that agencies should and have been focusing on in their FOIA administration. I encourage agencies to review the summary and references to many of the agencies’ work in that Summary as well as the agencies’ individual reports. Next slide.
Accompanying the Summary, we issued guidance based off our review of the reports on areas for agencies to continue to focus on for improvement. We emphasized timeliness, which is reducing backlogs and responding to expedited processing requests. Especially in light of unique challenges that agencies have faced in 2020 and now are facing going into 2021. In particular, during the 2020 CFO reporting process, agencies had faced a long government shutdown which impacted processing times, so we did account for that and agencies explained some of the success stories and how they were able to overcome some of those challenges.
In 2021, now obviously, with the recent pandemic, a lot of the new workplace precautions, agencies have had to adjust and reemphasize the guidance that we issued in May regarding agencies’ administration in light of COVID-19. Many different ways agencies can mitigate some of the challenges that they face working in a telework environment. And so I encourage you to continuously take a look at that guidance and reach out to us if you have any questions or if we can give any assistance in the unique challenges that your agency might face as we all work through the new realities of the workplace. Next slide.
As that reporting season has concluded, we have now issued the Chief FOIA Officer Report guidance for the 2020 CFO Report. We wanted to highlight a number of key dates. As in prior years or just similar to last year, we have divided the reporting requirements between large volume agencies and even those agencies that receive more than 50 requests or medium to large volume agencies, and agencies that receive 50 requests or less.
Those agencies that receive more than 50 requests are required to provide their report to OIP by January 11th. Those agencies receiving less than 50 are not required to report, but are encouraged to report if there are efforts that they have undertaken that they would like to discuss or challenges that are not reflected in their Annual FOIA Report. We will work with your agencies to review and finalize the report and all agencies' CFO reports are to be posted by March 15, 2021 [inaudible]. Next slide.
We continue that from the beginning of the CFO reports to continue to focus on five key areas of FOIA administration. The new guidelines do the same. We're focusing on FOIA administration and applying the presumption of openness in FOIA administration, ensuring that your agency has effective systems in place to respond to FOIA requests, improving and increasing proactive disclosures, increasing the utilization of technology, and improving timeliness and reducing backlogs. Next slide.
While the main areas of focus remain the same, we have - as we have throughout the years - adjusted the questions to reflect maturation of agencies’ FOIA programs or interactions with the public as well as with agencies and obviously new challenges that have occurred since the last reporting or new issues that have occurred since the last reporting period.
From the 2020 FOIA Guidelines, just to highlight some of the new questions that we're asking agencies to include in their report. A little bit more focused on FOIA training and the Chief FOIA Officer's role in providing that training to their agency FOIA professionals and agency personnel. Questions focusing on having standard operating procedures and reviewing those standard operating procedures, a survey question on agencies that have a large volume of first-party requests and whether some of those requests can be handled or have been explored handling them through alternative means or access. Updates on agencies' review and updates of their FOIA regulations. Of course, this year, we're very much interested in continuing to hear from you the impacts of COVID, how you’ve adjusted, challenges and success stories that we can leverage across agencies. Next slide.
The counterpart to the Chief FOIA Officer Report is obviously the Annual FOIA Report that has all the detailed statistics of your agency's FOIA administration during the fiscal year. The deadline for agency Annual FOIA Reports to the Department of Justice is November 16th. Then as you receive the reports, we'll work with you. So, you got a lot of organization and finalize them. All agency reports are required to be completed, posted on your website and then on FOIA.gov by March 1, 2021.
We have updated the Department of Justice Annual FOIA Report Handbook that was posted just earlier last week with addressing some elements, the new questions as well as streamlining it so it's more accessible and covering the new Department of Justice tool on FOIA.gov that agencies are going to be using this year to submit their Annual FOIA Report, which will hopefully provide, which is designed to provide a more efficient way of producing a report as well as additional data validation.
In fact, tomorrow morning, we are having a training on the Annual FOIA Reports. If your agency point of contact for the Annual FOIA Report has not registered and need to have that changed, please let us know if it's at capacity, but we will add on any agency POCs that need this training in order to complete your agency's Annual FOIA Report. Of course, if needed, we can schedule another session as well. Next slide.
Some updates on FOIA.gov. As many of you know, FOIA.gov launched in 2010 as the central website for agency FOIA administration for the public to know how the FOIA works and access all the Annual FOIA Report data. Next slide.
In 2018, we launched the national FOIA report which allows requesters to make requests to any of the agencies from FOIA.gov but. in addition to that, provide a wealth of knowledge particular to each agency and on how the FOIA works including your agency's FOIA regulation, a standardized template for responding to requests, links to your FOIA libraries, and so on. Since that launch, we're excited to continue to get user feedback both from the public and agencies and have been enhancing the site based off that feedback. There are some examples of those enhancements here. I won't go through all of them, but we'd like to highlight some of the new things that we've been doing. Next slide.
Upcoming enhancements we're excited about is a revamp of the Annual FOIA Report data pages of the FOIA.gov. We're combining the basic and advanced reporting functions in just a very much more streamlined way where you can more easily access and compare and search the Annual FOIA Report data that each of your agencies report each year by against your agency or against other agencies. The results can be viewed in FOIA.gov or downloaded in an open format on a CSV. It'll also be mobile friendly. Next slide.
Here's just the preview. You can see the old format on the left and the new format on the right. Hopefully we'll have this deployed soon for both agencies and the public to be able to use. Next slide.
We're also excited to implement and start using new tools that are going to permit us to gather more information, more detailed information about agencies and the public use of FOIA.gov. As you know, the site's dynamic and that the public side has a lot of information about the FOIA, how to make a request, and then the ability to submit the request on the agency side and so they are able to update their information directly and now provide their Annual FOIA Report data through there as well. We're interested to see how the public agencies are using the system and using that information to be able to further improve the site. Next slide.
One thing we're really excited about is the big project that we're going to be working on this year is improving the searchability on FOIA.gov of the FOIA libraries. The idea being here, we want the public to be able find, access and locate records that they're interested in easily without a FOIA request, wherever they are on the FOIA website but particularly in the FOIA libraries so that it’s very simple just to search across all agency FOIA libraries for any type of records that may already be publicly available.
This is very popular both from the public and the agency side initiative and we're excited that we recently were awarded phase one funding from GSA's 10x project to start working on this idea in the first two quarters of this fiscal year. As we're working on this, we welcome suggestions from all the Chief FOIA Officers here today and the public on best ways to do this, best user experience, as well as any other enhancements you'd like to see for FOIA.gov. Next slide.
We are continuing to work with you, your agencies on inter -operability, so I want to thank agencies for their interoperability plans. As you know, agencies with automated case management systems are required to implement the API by fiscal year 21. Agencies with non-automated solutions have already achieved their interoperability. But if your agency is not working with us directly, please do contact us and connect with us on implementing the API and we'll continue to reach out as well. Next slide.
Lastly, I just wanted to highlight given that it's our first meeting of the year, the resources available to the agencies, making sure that your agencies are taking advantage of them. Next slide.
First, of course is the Department of Justice Guide to the FOIA. It's a comprehensive legal treatise on all aspects of the FOIA, detailed discussions of the case law on FOIA's procedural requirements, exemptions, and litigation considerations. Next slide.
We did complete a full update of the guide, every chapter of it, in 2019 and we'll continue that momentum in updating in rolling fashion the chapters to make sure that they're continuously being updated and having a full update happen every two years. Recently, we've already published new chapters and for Proactive Disclosures, Exemption 2, Fees and Fee Waivers, and we'll continue to be doing that, so please keep an eye out through that in addition to the Department of Justice Guide to the FOIA -- next slide -- to have the most up to date on the case law. Encouraging agencies to use the guide as well as their FOIA court decision and summaries which are regularly being updated on the newest FOIA decisions in the state of case law. Next slide.
FOIA self-assessment toolkit. We have stressed that in order for us to be able to improve our FOIA administration continuously, it's important that we continuously assess each aspect of the FOIA administration in this new interval and creating short and long improvement plans. We issued a FOIA assessment toolkit a number of years ago that breaks down each part of the FOIA process from intake to search to responding to requesters and provides a format that agencies can make an objective assessment of where they are and how they can improve and compiling guidance and resources related to those areas.
We're excited to hopefully soon have new modules and a revamped FOIA self-assessment toolkit that includes, embeds in it the use of technology, and has new modules on appeals, the user appeal process, and proactive disclosures. That'll be something to keep an eye out for this year. Next slide.
These are just some of the many areas the toolkit already covers. Next slide.
In addition, we are continuing to do Best Practices Workshops. The Best Practices Workshop series, focusing on various topics in FOIA administration such as backlog reduction, technology, customer service, FOIA training, proactive disclosures, where we would like to hear from the agencies that had particular success in these areas so that other agencies can benefit from their strategies and the way they’ve been able to achieve their accomplishments.
We are hoping to have a proactive best Practices Workshop on technologies soon, particularly with the use of eDiscovery tools. But I wanted to take a moment here to ask agencies, agency Chief FOIA Officers to let us know what Best Practices Workshops they would find beneficial for us to… and if their agency would like to participate in such workshops.
Then finally, of course, OIP continues its training program. We switched over to virtual training in providing more regular training on these three topics. FOIA training I think is essential for FOIA professional agency's success and FOIA administration. We encourage you to encourage your agency FOIA professionals to attend training, our training, and if there are topics that we have not covered in our regularly scheduled training, please let us know. Also, we continue and look forward to providing tailored training to agencies that would find that beneficial as well.
With that, I just want to thank everyone again for joining and I’d be happy to take any questions from agencies on the WebEx or online about any of these initiatives or resources.
LINDSAY STEEL: We have a couple of questions on the WebEx. This is Lindsay. Before I get to those, one reminder to all of our attendees, we do ask that members of the public please hold your question until our public comment session towards the end of the presentation. I did receive one public comment which I have noted and will read out at the end. If you're a member of the public, we kindly ask that you hold your input until the end. We do have a couple of questions from agencies. The first one is, are FOIA libraries the same as FOIA reading rooms?
BOBBY TALEBIAN: Yes. That was a name change that we made a while ago. As you know, the idea of the FOIA reading room goes way back in the statute. Years ago, or decades ago, if you wanted to view the records in an agency, the agency is required to provide proactively, you would physically go to a reading room in their building to view those. In light of the reality and the fact that now all of these are online, we call them FOIA libraries. You can see the term used interchangeably, but they are the same thing.
LINDSAY STEEL: We have one other question which is asking about the Chief FOIA Officer report guidelines from Mr. [00: 26: 18]. I would like to clarify that the link that you provided actually is linking to our 2020 guidelines which would have been last year's guidelines. We're now on to the 2021 guidelines which are based on FY 19 data. Just wanted to clarify that.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: Thank you, Lindsay.
LINDSAY STEEL: Sure. No other questions from the WebEx at this time.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: All right, thank you. I guess with that, I'll turn it over to Alina.
ALINA M. SEMO: Great. Thanks so much, Bobby. We really appreciate that. A lot of information, that’s great. We're planning to post the PowerPoint slide deck they presented on our website. I believe you guys are going to do the same thing on the OIP website. Anyone who missed all of that great content, we will see it soon. If I could ask for the event producer to turn over to the next slide deck. Here we go. Okay. We’re back to the theme. Next slide please.
One of the several ways that our office tries to improve the administration of FOIA is through our work on the FOIA Advisory Committee which I chair. The OIP Director, Bobby, most recently, has been a continuous member of that committee. The committee brings together members of the FOIA community from inside and outside the government to collaboratively identify the greatest challenges in the administration of FOIA and develop recommendations for the Archivist of the United States.
As of today, the committee has made a total of 30 recommendations, if you could believe that that’s incredible, to the Archivist and has advanced over 35 best practices. They cover a broad range of topics all designed to improve the FOIA process and access to government documents. Some of these recommendations are already complete. Some are in progress and some are just starting to roll our sleeves up to get started on. We will soon be adding a dashboard feature on our OGIS website that will track the status of each of the Committee's recommendations, so please look through that. Next slide, please.
Earlier this year on June 4, 2020, the 2018-2020 term of the FOIA Advisory Committee held its final meeting and concluded its work on the Final report and Recommendation. I am incredibly grateful to the 2018-2020 Committee members who continue to work through to the finish line despite the challenges with the global pandemic, telework and remote meetings.
The committee's final report and recommendations dated July 9, 2020 was transmitted to the Archivist of the United States and continues with unprecedented 22 separate recommendations. The final report is available on the OGIS website, the link is there on the slide. Since I only have a short time with you today, I will share an overview of the report and where we go from here. Next slide, please.
Some of you may recall my presentation a couple of years ago in which I used colorful buckets to illustrate recommendations and best practices advanced by the 2016-2018 FOIA Advisory Committee. I decided to continue with that bucket theme today but I'm relying on some pictures from the National Archives catalog. I give proper source information at the bottom in case anyone wants to check in with us. Next slide, please.
The first bucket is the largest one. That has recommendations, a total of 15, to the National Archives, to OGIS, to OIP, and to federal agencies. The categories are broken down into the five areas you see listed there. I'm not going to repeat those. Several recommendations will require collaboration between OGIS and OIP and we have already started our discussions and discussed ways to move forward. Some of the recommendations look to OIP to issue further guidance to agencies on such topics as improving online description of the FOIA process, inclusion of records management related materials and FOIA handbooks on agency websites, and the use of eDiscovery tools to assist agencies in searches of electronic records.
Other recommendations rely on OGIS to conduct assessments and work with its NARA colleagues to advance the idea of public access to federal records as part of NARA's Federal Electronic Records Modernization Initiative, FERMI, and liaison with NARA colleagues and OIP to develop records management training for FOIA professionals as well as briefings for incoming senior leaders following changes of the administration or leadership.
Federal agencies also have some to-dos on their list; collect, describe, and give access to records in one or more central repository and on agency websites, release FOIA documents on websites in open legible machine-readable, machine-actionable format, make commonly requested documents available outside the FOIA process. For more details, please look at the report. Next slide, please.
Bucket three. You'll notice I skipped bucket two. I will come back to that at the end. Bucket three has the smallest amount of recommendations, only one, but it's a good one for the Council of the Inspector General on Integrity and Efficiency or CIGIE. We will be asking the CIGIE chair to initiate a cross-cutting project that will examine how successful agencies’ FOIA programs are in providing access to agency records and electronic and [inaudible]. Please stay tuned for that. Next slide, please.
Bucket four has two recommendations for Congress to engage in regular and robust oversight of FOIA, and I know a lot of agency professionals will be pleased to hear the second one is to address funding for agencies' FOIA programs. Always a very important topic for all of us FOIA professionals. Next slide, please.
Bucket five, looking to the future. That set of recommendations actually asks the Archivist to guide ongoing and future federal data strategies to include FOIA and promote research into the use of AI, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to improve FOIA searches and process of requests. The Archivist is excited to pursue both of those, and so we will be working with him to continue that work.
This is a good opportunity for me to address where the current term of the Committee is headed. We’ve heard the Archivist mention that the 2020-2022 term kicked off already. We had our first virtual meeting on September 10, 2020. We have some returning and some new members. Following a robust discussion, the fourth term of the Committee has decided to form four subcommittees: classification, legislation, process, and technology. We will be asking each of the subcommittees to help out with some of the 2018-2020 recommendations. For example, the legislation subcommittee can help with more specific details we can provide to Congress regarding those recommendations.
The subcommittees are currently working on their mission statement or objectives which we will post as soon as they are complete. The committee's next meeting will take place virtually on Thursday, December 10, 2020, so we hope you will be able to join us on this same WebEx channel and different telephone line. Next slide, please.
You may have figured out by now that I saved the best for last, bucket number two, that contains two recommendations specifically directed to our meeting today, the CFO council. One recommendation asks the Council to work with agency leadership to issue an annual memorandum on the importance of FOIA. A continuation of the FOIA is everyone's responsibility theme that you’ve all known for years. Agency leadership, if you're hearing this, please stay tuned, we'll be in touch. You'll be hearing from me and Bobby.
The second recommendation asks the council to create a new Committee. That new Committee will research and propose cross-agency grant programs and other FOIA funding sources, create career paths for FOIA professionals, and promote models to align agency resources with agency transparency. Next slide, please.
Let's form the Council's second Committee. The first one is the Technology Committee. You'll be hearing from those co-chairs shortly. I would like to suggest the name of the Committee for Cross-Agency Collaboration and Innovation would be a great starting point. Bobby and I are actively seeking volunteer government FOIA professionals to help us stand up and chair this Committee. Our email addresses are up on the website right now, on the slide right now. Please email us both if you are interested in volunteering, and the more, the merrier. We welcome any and all folks who are interested in this effort.
The good news is that the FOIA Advisory Committee has given the Committee a roadmap for how to proceed that will help guide the members as they move forward so you're not starting completely from scratch. Also, we're all monitoring the chat history and if anyone is interested in volunteering even as of right now in the chat, please don’t be shy. Throw your name out and we'll be happy to follow up. Next slide, please.
Bobby and I have both covered a lot of information up until now. We wanted to take this opportunity to see if there are any questions from our agency colleagues? This is a bit more challenging to do in this virtual environment as opposed to when we're in the McGowan Theatre and asking folks to come up to the mic. But we'll definitely try our best. If any questions have come in via chat, we will cover those. Or if you have any questions right now, chat them to us right now.
We will also ask our event producer to open up telephone lines for our federal colleagues who want to raise any issues and we particularly want to hear from agency folks who have been facing challenges and the challenges they’ve been encountering in the FOIA programs during this very difficult pandemic period. We'd be happy to hear from folks on that. I'm going to ask Lindsay if she sees anything on that chat from our agency friends.
LINDSAY STEEL: Yes. We have one. More logistical questions on the chat from Mr. Osumi about the Annual Report training tomorrow. You're correct that the Eventbrite registration has ended, but please, you can email OIP directly and ask to be added to that registration. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll get you signed up. No other questions in the chat at this time.
ALINA M. SEMO: Okay. Don’t be shy. Please continue to chat. I'm going to turn to my colleague, Martha Murphy. Martha, do we have any chats, questions from the YouTube side?
MARTHA W. MURPHY: Nothing yet.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: While people are maybe taking some time to think of something they may want to talk about, I do… both Alina and I did want to mention that we do plan to have these meetings more regularly, and so we really would welcome not just the… either now or anytime, shoot us an email, some of the topics that agencies would like us to address or cover in these meetings. I think as I said, as echoing the message from the Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General, the leadership of the CFOs and the work of this council is very important, and our success depends on each other.
ALINA M. SEMO: Yes. Thanks, Bobby. We haven't set any dates yet, but we will plan to do so soon, so please check both of our websites for additional information on that. As Bobby mentioned earlier, we are very open to any topics for the next council meeting agenda if there are particular issues that agencies would like to discuss, we're very open to that as well. Lindsay, are there any other chat questions? I just want to make sure that we haven't missed anything before we move on.
LINDSAY STEEL: No other questions, although we did have our first volunteer for the new Committee. Putting out there as a way to encourage any other participation and volunteers. Feel free to put your name in the chat and I'll make note of those.
ALINA M. SEMO: Okay, terrific. All right. Bobby and I are very happy to end this meeting early, and we are a little bit ahead of our agenda schedule which is just fine. Either that or our next presenters are going to take up the entire time they've been allotted which is also perfectly fine with us as well. Next, I'm very excited to turn the floor over to the co-chairs of the CFO Council's first formed Committee, the Technology Committee.
They are joining us today to tell us about the exciting work that the Committee has already accomplished and the work they're taking on in this upcoming year. The Technology Committee was formed in September 2018 as a result of a past FOIA Advisory Committee recommendation. Although they were originally set up as a subcommittee, we have elevated their status to a full Committee. Up until today, they were the only one now, they will always be the first one as well.
I'm very pleased to welcome the co-chairs of the Technology Committee, Eric Stein and Michael Sarich. A brief introduction of both. Eric is the Director of the Office of Information Programs and Services at the State Department. His office is responsible for the Department's records management, FOIA, Privacy Act, classification, declassification, library and other records and information access program. Mike is the Veterans Health Administration FOIA Director and leads the program with over 300 FOIA and Privacy Act officers who handle over 25,000 requests across 151 facilities worldwide. Lots of great experience from both. I'm going to turn it over to you now Michael and Eric.
ERIC F. STEIN: Great. Good morning. This is Eric Stein. First, can you hear me?
ALINA M. SEMO: Yes.
ERIC F. STEIN: Great. Good morning, everyone. Good morning to all the Chief FOIA Officers, to all of you members of the public joining us. My name is Eric Stein. I'm joined by Michael Sarich. Mike, say hello.
MICHAEL SARICH: Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for joining. A real pleasure to be here.
ERIC F. STEIN: We are the co-chairs of the Chief FOIA Officers Council Technology Committee. Next slide, please. Mike and I have worked throughout the year with our Committee to make really good progress from where we were about a year ago when we were just starting to figure out our charter, our mission, and our mandate. Next slide, please.
We were created by the FOIA Advisory Committee in a recommendation, as mentioned previously, and we've spent the past almost two years developing a governing structure and just really trying to understand the technology issues that the FOIA community faces. One of the biggest changes we've had over the past year is that this year, right in the throes of the pandemic, we had an increase in our Committee membership by about 25 people.
So, despite the challenges of remote work for many agencies, this was the first time they were working remotely, we were able to create a new group and body with 40 members now and we've created a governing structure with eight different groups working on focused technology issues with the intention of working to improve FOIA -- whether it be FOIA case processing in agencies, sharing best practices, or increasing confidence and awareness in technology in general.
Just a couple of things to walk through where we've been in the past year. In February, we released our report and it’s on the OGIS website, best practices, and recommendations. Michael will be talking about those recommendations in a moment. In April, Michael and I co-chaired an OIP Best Practices Workshop on FOIA and technology with about 500 participants. In April, significantly, since the pandemic was just underway at that time and we did it virtually. It was, I think, the first time we did that ever virtually.
Also, in April, we added 25 members. In June and July, we started these working groups I mentioned. We'll go into detail on those today. We've been spending the past few months working on charters as well, which we'll be talking about. With that said, I'd like to turn it over to Mike to talk about the Best Practices Report and Recommendations and also, we're going to go into detail about the working groups. Mike, over to you.
MICHAEL SARICH: Thank you so much. The real strength of the Committee as Eric mentioned is the diversity of participants that we have. We have members from a really huge diverse group of federal agencies, some very big, some very small, and everyone in between. February 14th, we issued what we call our FOIA Valentine's for the FOIA community in this report with a number of best practices, again, drawn from the strength of the different members of the Committee working for very large agencies, very small agencies. We really want to make sure that the recommendations are scalable and appropriate for the different sized FOIA operations but specifically talking about the recommendations that we made.
The first one - and a number of these are largely implemented or underway - was to maintain a Technology Committee. We were upgraded from a subcommittee to a full Committee. We're very appreciative of that and maintained a momentum there.
The second and third recommendations that we made were to put on the GSA schedule records and then FOIA case management. What this does is to enable the smaller agencies, the agencies that don’t have that ability to scale up and get these larger contracts the same access that the big players have in the FOIA space. So, one second. Okay, then in addition, the fourth and fifth recommendations were having rolling events, opportunities for engagement and we'll talk more about these in just a second when we move to the working groups and their charters and jobs that they're going to be doing.
And finally, the FOIA Committee serves as a body that can assist the group to… sorry, for FOIA programs that are looking for some technology assistance where they have questions about how they can implement these best practices in their agencies. Whereas, as a standing body, a group that agencies' Chief FOIA Officers can come to and ask questions in a very safe environment as they look to add technology to their programs and move forward there. As I mentioned, so many of these recommendations are completed or actively moving forward.
Again, one of the great strengths of this Committee is that it's a very action-oriented group and we're looking forward to not only have these reports but actually taking the actions indicated in the report and moving the field forward.
ERIC F. STEIN: Mike, if I may, I just want to add here.
MICHAEL SARICH: Yes, please.
ERIC F. STEIN: We've heard a lot about working groups and Committees so far at this meeting and there's a lot of Committees, a lot of working groups. We're very sensitive to the fact that we don’t want to duplicate efforts. Under Bobby and Alina's leadership, we carefully coordinate with these other bodies. I want to be very clear. The FOIA Advisory Committee, for example, as to the public private partnership and its membership is wonderful because we get perspectives that wouldn’t just necessarily get from having a government-only group. We take those recommendations and find the best forum in which to take action.
Our Committee here, the Technology Committee we're talking about today, our primary focus is improving awareness, training, development for FOIA professionals including understanding the resources that are already out there in the government so we're not asking for things that they don’t, if they already exist and we'll be able to get them; providing means of discussing how to get access to those tools, getting focused on technology, and how to share best practices to the various communities.
As you heard, there are other working groups looking at technology in different areas. We actually are in touch with them or working with them, and I'm remiss because I didn’t mention last month, we did brief the FOIA Advisory Committee and got some really good feedback and perspective. There were ideas that had been discussed in one way or another possibly in the past, but coming from the public, members of the public and others, helps to really improve our thinking about how to resolve these issues. Mike, back over to you.
MICHAEL SARICH: Thank you. Yeah, absolutely. One of the keys – kind of piggybacking on what Eric was stressing here – is that we want to make sure that the lessons that we're learning from this diverse group of people, that we're able to share them as widely as possible in the FOIA community. As Eric mentioned, being able to do the Best Practice Workshop, being able to present here today and to be able to work with the FOIA Advisory Committee who also has a technology piece. We’re able to talk to them just last week on some initiatives that they're working on and making sure that we're working collaboratively in this space, which is so critical to moving the FOIA practice forward governmentwide.
The eight working groups, again, this is a working Committee. This is a Committee that is all about putting actions forward. It's all about moving the FOIA field forward. We've organized eight pillars and those pillars are working on finalizing charters and we've got some exciting news coming up. Let's move to the next slide and we'll share with you guys what the eight working groups are. Eric and I divided these up, so I'll talk about a couple and then Eric will talk about a couple. You'll have a full briefing, a full overview of where we're at right now and more importantly where we're going together.
First off is Collaborative Tools which I'm very fortunate to work with. What Collaborative Tools is all about in many ways is as agencies continue to embrace new technology, so for example at the Veterans Health Administration where we've moved from Skype to Microsoft Teams, one of the implications from a FOIA perspective on using these new collaborative tools.
For example, where a Skype message may or may not have been retained depending on agency, depending on what this one says now in Microsoft Teams, all of that information is being captured. From an agency perspective, from a FOIA perspective, we've trained our personnel, the people that work at the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Administration that, hey, if you have a Skype message, maybe it's not going to be captured so you can talk in this way. But now it's not. Now it's going to be captured.
What our role here is FOIA professionals to make sure that we are providing all of this information to the employees and our teammates across the administration because the last thing you want to hear is, well, I thought that wasn’t going to kind of go out. You want to make sure that there's a wide understanding of what FOIA roles and responsibilities are as these new collaborative tools come into being.
Everyone's seen the incredible pivot that we've made governmentwide to remote work in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. With that pivot has come a large increase in collaborative tools and understanding that implication in the FOIA space is critical as we move forward. Very happy to work with that group and they're doing great work.
The next group I'm also able to work with is 508 compliance. Kind of piggybacking on what Bobby was talking about to even open this session, there are many areas of the FOIA where we're looking to make sure that we get information out to the public as much as we can whether it be FOIA reading rooms or whether it be on programmatic websites, whatever it may be to get the information to the people that need it. Maybe that albeit a FOIA request because the information is there where you can direct a FOIA request or choose this information that’s already publicly available. Making sure that that information is readable by the entire community.
We all have this 508-compliance mandate and it's a good mandate because it enables every citizen and every requester to be able to access this information. You don’t place people on favor to your space on ability. Understanding this responsibility and understanding how you can achieve full 508 compliance to the FOIA program is important. It's an issue that comes up every year. It comes up over and over again in informal conversations that you have with peers in the FOIA community.
One of the things that the Technology Committee has discovered but certainly highlighted is that agencies are at different locations. Some agencies are very large, and they have robust tools. Some agencies are not as large and they don’t have the same tools, so being able to provide a kind of guidepost and guidelines for folks at agencies of all sizes is going to be critical, I think, moving forward to ensure that we're posting as much as we can online, that we're providing the people with as much information as possible. Now Eric, will pass it over to you for FOIA searches.
ERIC F. STEIN: Great. Thanks Mike. Before I go on to FOIA searches, I know we have Chief FOIA Officers here with us today as well as… their representatives. In each of these areas, we found throughout the year that the practitioners at your agencies have really worked hard to either identify the issues and propose solutions or find ways to move forward. In some cases, they really had to make some changes and pivots to their programs. All the support that you provide to them is much appreciated.
It's one of the best things I think that can be done. I just want to say thank you because we do hear positive stories about your employees feeling supported. That does matter. It does help with morale. Especially in this remote environment and balancing everything else. Everything else, anything we can do to help improve FOIA processing matters. Just a brief thank you there.
Now going into FOIA searches which is a very hot topic especially in the electronic age. Each of these groups here that -- my camera has gone fuzzy so hold on one second. May this resolve the issue. Moving on, FOIA searches. This is a challenge in general. It used to be agencies couldn’t find records in the paper environment but then we moved to the situation where we have so much information at the agencies, we're getting overwhelmed and inundated by dealing with searches.
Add on top of that the challenges of not all records are accessible remotely because of the sensitivity or if they're classified. We can talk about that in the classified section in a few minutes. This has created real challenges. For example, some agencies have FOIA case processing software for the case processing piece that they could work on remotely, but they did not have means of accessing some of the search tools for records they would need to get into said systems during the pandemic.
Agencies are working really hard to look at these issues and find out the best way to do so in a way that also ensures their safety and the safety of their family or everyone who's around them and who’s coming to the office and how. I know it may sound like a very simple issue but it's a real challenge right now in terms of how to get them and how to do the best searches possible. That’s something out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moving on to the broader mandate of this FOIA search working group in general, as Michael and I have mentioned, we are finishing charters. Why are we talking about the charters so much? Mike and I firmly believe that each of these groups need to have a clearly scoped mission with deliverables so that when we finish that work, either we sunset the respective working group and move on to a different topic and re-shift our resources there or keep moving forward. I think searches will be one that we work on for a while.
I'll just give you an example. For the FOIA search group, their charter right now, we're looking at three primary proposed areas. One being, and we've already started, outreach to agencies. All of you on the line and our counterparts who aren't with us today, looking at their best practices and challenges and just doing electronic record searches for FOIA in this period, whether they can distinguish between COVID or not because we are where we are right now and so we want to know “what challenges do you face right now” which would be in this environment, and “how are you addressing them” or “what tools, resources, or support do you need from a technology perspective to address them?”
Another one of our deliverables, we're taking all of these best practices and issues and similar to what we did as a larger Committee in February issuing some sort of paper probably more succinct to a couple of pages, we're thinking. Here are the issues we found and here are the proposals or best practices we've identified in these areas as well.
Then we're going to look for ways to do different outreach to the FOIA community to talk about what best practices are working out there and have practitioners who are champions of this cause, similar to Bobby and Alina said for the other working groups and propose to OIP and to OGIS, here are some speakers you may want to consider who are willing to do that. We actually have one such outreach event that we'll talk about later.
But the FOIA searches are not… searches are here to stay. Technology becomes important looking at areas like artificial intelligence, technology assisted review, how do we leverage and balance out the technology and the people aspect of this work. It's exciting to see it’s actually underway. If it's not underway, there's an appetite for it. This group is really, really interesting and it touches on several of the other groups that we're talking about here today, but we keep the scope and mandate to each group focused.
I'll just close by saying each of the charters we talked about, the intention is to post them publicly on the OGIS website because this is a transparency group and we do want feedback not just from government agencies but from the public as well, whether it be through the FOIA Advisory Committee or those of you with us on the line here or in the presentations we make because you share great ideas. Including, we got ideas on how to go about searches from the FOIA Advisory Committee and real issues from the requester community. Hearing those issues really helps us decide how we go about providing the best tools and recommendations.
I'm going to turn it back over to Mike in about one minute. He's going to discuss FOIAXpress and FOIAonline. I'm sure he's about to say the same thing that I'm about to, that we do not endorse any specific product as a Committee or in the government, just to be crystal clear. What we found is that FOIAXpress and FOIAonline are two of the more prominently used IT tools for FOIA case processing. There are different ways being used in agencies and different tips and best practices and areas for improvement. It's part of our work to empower FOIA professionals and build confidence especially in these hybrid remote and onsite times. These are two really important groups and Mike's going to talk about them now. Mike, over to you.
MICHAEL SARICH: Thank you. Yes, neither of us nor anyone on the Committee are spokespersons for any particular product, for sure. What this highlights is that the FOIA, the Technology Committee rather, is a people-driven group. We're looking for solutions that will help people every day in their work. One of the early areas that we coalesced around communities of interest was for both FOIAXpress and FOIAonline. Just to highlight a few of the things that we're doing with these two groups in the coming month. Now again, as Eric mentioned, we don’t endorse any one of them. However, these two are also… a number of members of the Committee use these products so it's a natural area to look at.
As we look to build these communities of interest, the reality hit and the feedback was, from the incredible members of our Committee, FOIAXpress in Virginia and Connecticut, great contributions in terms of perspective along with other members of the community that also use FOIA, these types of tools, is sometimes you kind of feel alone when you're using this tool.
The reality is that there's many other people in the community doing the same thing that you're doing and probably having the same challenges. If we work together collectively, we can find solutions to them. For example, something that worked, that maybe my team came up with at VHA as a way to move the ball forward using the AI product, you can also use it at your agency.
So, building those communities of interest is really important and the FOIAXpress group is going to be starting that process at the end of the month at the FOIAXpress Users Conference. Kind of just as a preview, have a bit of some words there and an opportunity for people to come together. Again, this couldn’t happen without the people-driven solutions or the members of the Committee and the request that we have. We see the need out there for these things.
Then moving to FOIAonline, we have some incredible members there. They can help teach what it is to onboard the system, so if you're an agency that doesn’t have this type of process, right? It doesn’t have accounts products that you're looking to fit into your FOIA program. We can talk about the lessons of the onboarding process like a solution like this or any kind of cost product because this is going to become nowadays with whatever cost product that you use, and so understanding the four walls of that. I was fortunate enough to be able to go through that at another agency.
There's members on the team as well who can… that will help provide those lessons learned and those kinds of best practices, again, as we look to build this community of interest because at the end of the day, we're all doing FOIA and if you're using a similar product, you're going to probably end up with many similar challenges across the federal family. I think that’s one of the real strengths of the Technology Committee and indeed this meeting itself.
Those are just kind of… I wanted to highlight a couple of things with the FOIAXpress and FOIAonline groups are doing, but again, as we look to finalize our charters in the coming weeks, we'll have that clear mandate in terms of what we want to accomplish and we're looking forward to moving forward in those areas and building that kind of community of interest for folks to be able to share best practices, to be able to share lessons learned, and in many ways, to make sure people understand that they're not alone out there doing these things and that this technology is there to assist them.
It's something not to be afraid of but something to be embraced that you can really drive positive change in your FOIA program and drive down backlogs, increase requester satisfaction, of course mitigate litigation, and all of these things that’s slow and having a more efficient FOIA program. We're looking to leverage that success moving forward in the coming fiscal year. Back to you Eric for FOIA and classified information.
ERIC F. STEIN: Great. Thanks, Mike. FOIA and classified information. This one has been particularly challenging this year because of the pandemic. Reviewing classified information of course happens in certain facilities and not everywhere. It's a challenge. But this group is looking at the challenges for screening spaces in general with classified information. It touches on the area that I mentioned before like search or the tools.
How do we think holistically across the government on other mandates that are out there such as those in Executive Order 13526 on the mandatory declassification review request, the 25-year review mandate? How does technology play a role and what gets declassified and requested? How can we leverage technology better? What technology is on the various classified networks? Which of course we can't go into right now, but looking into these discussions, here we have representatives from three different agencies, and we are looking for additional participation on this group who work with classified information.
Given the pandemic, there's concerns about our ability to move forward and certain areas of this work, but we have been able to talk generally about the issues that we're facing without getting into classified information. For this group, we're currently discussing issues that we face among the three participants on that working group right now. We're going to talk to key agencies and stakeholders that deal with declassification. I know we've heard this interest in the public. There's the PIDB group that’s out there. There are other groups that are talking about declassification issues. We're trying to stay plugged in to overall declassification issues and then channel that and harness and focus that into FOIA as well.
We're currently doing our initial preliminary research of the issues that not just we know about, but we've also seen are out there. Our next steps would be to hold some sort of meeting of the government officials who work with classified information ideally in a secure way because we don’t want to have any type of issues of security matters discussing these issues. But we're going to go as far as we can remotely.
I will say I'm very proud of this Technology Committee and the various members Mike mentioned and the ones on the working groups that I oversee. They’ve been working really hard remotely in addition to the regular day jobs of FOIA taking on these additional responsibilities as well. It's really appreciated. There's a lot of good work that goes on that doesn’t often get recognized, so I'd take this opportunity to say thank you also to all of you at the Chief FOIA Officer level who have your members participating with our group.
For artificial intelligence, we have a working group that’s doing a great job getting the lay of the land and what is being used out in the government with AI in general. Understanding what's being done for artificial intelligence with regards to records management and then for FOIA. As Mike has said, we are a group committed to action, so here's one of the things I'm very excited to talk about. We have I think tentatively got it scheduled for November 5th -- a session for FOIA practitioners, for government officials and introduction to AI and with a focus on FOIA. This will be a FOIA AI 101.
This group is going to … it's chaired by Nick Wittenberg. He's doing a great job. We have a wonderful group of participants in this community. The AI working group is going to lead this November 5th discussion; what is AI, go through some key terms about what AI is and is not, then look at the FOIA community and how AI either is but more of a lean toward how it could help with FOIA searches, FOIA review, FOIA case processing moving forward.
While a lot of this is internal to agencies and how we're processing, of course if there are ways, we could leverage it to improve the user experience on the other end, that’s also very important and something we'll have to build to over time. Right now, we're working just to get people familiar with the AI session. It's on November 5th, I believe is the date, November 5. There will be information about that as well.
The November 5th session, like I said, will be for government officials and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is FOIA AI 101 that we may have a 201 or a 301 series in this moving forward. Even in the 101 session, I encourage all of you whether you're at the Chief FOIA Officer level or your proxies or your employees to attend just to become familiar with the conversations that’s out there. Because a lot of the work we do in technology in this group is just getting people comfortable with talking about these issues and topics. There's definitely an appetite and people are generally interested, and you hear more and more about AI every day. But to then understand what it is and isn't, that’s important.
Our focus is to really provide a primer on here's what AI is, here's how we think it could help FOIA, and then the best part of this session is the dialogue that happens after the engagement. It's not just at these sessions like the AI session we're going to hold, it's also in the working group meetings. We are very excited about this work and I think AI is going to be one thing that’s here and it'll be an enduring topic working group discussion moving forward. It is here to stay. With that, I turn it back over to Mike for video redactions.
MICHAEL SARICH: Thanks, Eric. Again, I think we're all very excited about the AI presentation on the 5th. No one's backing up a truck filled with FTEs to help this process and everyone's records -- regardless of the agency -- the volume of things that we're producing is increasing every day. I was re-reading Ramsey Clark's memo 1967 memo for a training I was doing for my folks at the end of the year and some of the same challenges that we had in 1967 are the same ones that we had today.
Hopefully, AI is going to help us bridge that gap finally and get to that next step. I'm very excited about that and that series of iterative trainings so we can all get up to speed on this important and critical technology that I think is really going to be the future of our field.
Another burgeoning area, something that we produce more and more, and we create these federal records, these things are used in our operation that requesters have legitimate reason or rationale to request and we have a reasonable obligation to produce comes with video redaction. You can't walk into a veteran's health administration hospital facility without being under a CCTV and I think that’s the norm in many areas, in the Social Security Administration office, the field office. You can go in there and there's going to be CCTV and if an incident happened, there's going to be a certain request for video, given the video age that we live in.
Again, as Eric talked about, we are a Committee of action. So, we thought we would share some of the early findings from the video redaction working group. If we can move to the next slide, I want to share five of the early findings that we found and give you some actionable tools to walk away from this presentation. Again, these are five of the early findings we're going to look forward to a full presentation that we're going to arrive with this working group as part of their charter. But we wanted to just give you a taste of some of the early findings and give you a few things to take away.
The video retention schedules can vary widely. Some of the videos that you'll see when you walk into a building may have a 30-day loop, may have a 14-day loop. It's going to vary from system to system and a lot of these are age-dependent, how old is the system, what's the capacity of the server to hold this information?
If a request isn't received and promptly processed, to put a hold on that information, say October 14th at 11: 20 AM something happened at this social security administration office, well if you don’t put a hold on that very quickly, that tape is going to get dumped or that data is going to be dumped and oftentimes, it's not recoverable. A key to processing these things early and understanding what your record retention schedules are if you're going to run a successful and transparent FOIA program.
Another one is the tools vary in complexity, so matching the tools to the job we found in the FOIA field. You could get a very robust system that you could basically make the next iteration of Star Wars on or you could get something that does a very simple task, and the complexity varies, right? What level of education do you need to have or solicit with these tools? Do you need to be able to properly redact these moving images because some of them are very complex and labor and time intensive? Matching the tool to the job. Do you get a program that costs $5,000 and takes three weeks to learn how to do it in the rudimentary way or do you have a tool that’s going to be more targeted for what you're looking to do which is basically blur faces and voices, largely.
Another key early finding was that litigation can drive schedules and agency resource allocation; everyone who's been in FOIA for any significant period of time has probably dealt with litigation and court-mandated schedules. You don’t want to miss a court mandated schedule. If the court says you must have this by date certain, then agencies are often forced to scramble and allocate resources in a reactionary way. Those redaction schedules can drive how the agency allocates finding and so the sense is what can we do proactive as directors of FOIA programs or as senior folks as Chief FOIA Officers? We’re making our resource request for our fiscal years so we don’t have to go into unallocated funds and tap into those budgets that the agency may have other priorities for. Because certainly, the Veterans Health Administration has plenty of use for funding during this COVID pandemic, so going to them and saying, "Hey, I need 200 grand to stand up a VA redaction team," in the midst of that isn't going to be well received as well as if I say now prior and say, "Hey, this is an ongoing demand. We need to have this resource capability, or these are the consequences," and we need to make a management decision to see what the business use is there for that resource.
Earmarking funds for FOIA contractors with specialized skills as some agencies have done can be very efficient. Rather than taking someone who may or may not be very proficient with this type of advanced software and hiring that skill out, right? You could change the brakes on your car, but you don’t, most people anyway, right? So, you take it to a brake specialist or someone that can change your brakes.
Likewise, if you have an occasional very rare FOIA request that’s going to demand video redaction, rather than having one or two or three FOIA officers spend three weeks learning this tool and then using it when they could've processed 15 or 20, some number of requests that would then preclude further litigation or preclude other issues popping up, backlog increases and the like, it may make more sense just to take that off your plate. You don’t necessarily have to do everything in a FOIA office if you are able to allocate some resources, earmarking funds for a search capability or capacity, rather, when you get these types of requests in.
However, a really visionary member of this working group and I'm so proud of the work that happened in this video redaction group is a recommendation to consider adding the video redaction skills to your PDs and to performance plans. As we all think about session planning and bringing new talent into our FOAI programs, it's very likely that people in different generations will have more felicity with these tools. They’ll have grown on Instagram. They’ll have grown up videoing things and doing projects over and over in school.
Building that in could be an entry way for a professional individual looking to find a FOIA career that can be the one key differentiator that makes them a great member of your team moving forward. So, building that into your PD and adding those video redaction skills to performance plans if you're an agency that has this could be a really useful thing moving forward. It'll help those folks that are even looking for jobs. If they do their keyword searches and say, "Oh, I've got this background and now I can take this background and apply it in a really special way in working and transparency for the federal government." Just having that there under USAJobs as a keyword for people to search could be useful as we're looking to strengthen our own benches. I know we've got 300 plus FOIA officers all across the country having a handful of guys or gals that know this technology really well is really useful. It really is a force multiplier for our entire program. It doesn’t have to be at every facility but having a handful of folks that know what they're doing in that area is super useful.
Again, we just felt that it'll be important to give you a little taste. We're very excited about the AI piece first and then I think next will be video redaction. We're going to roll these presentations out and this information out as quickly as we can to the FOIA community to give you the best thoughts of the folks that are doing this. Again, it's an action-oriented group. We want to get this information out as quickly as we can so we can help be a resource, a real go-to resource for folks in the FOIA community, looking to add that, to innovate and streamline and increase efficiencies in their programs. With that, next slide please. Pass it over to Eric for what our working groups' next steps are.
ERIC F. STEIN: Great. Thanks, Mike. We've already talked about finalizing the charters. Our target is to be done by next month. You could check the OGIS website and really there are targets to have those completed and posted. They are living documents so they're subject to change but we're really trying to focus on the target deadlines for each deliverable. That’s where we are with the charters.
Then of course as Mike had discussed, implementation. We'll hold some of the sessions including the November 5th workshop. I believe information about that will come out from OIP or OGIS, so stay tuned or check their websites and they may touch on those points. We’re going to look at other sessions on potential video redaction and looking at FOIAXpress and FOIAonline and exploring ideas. Mike, back over to you.
MICHAEL SARICH: Sure. Complete is a really important word here, right? Because I don’t think we'll ever be complete with technology. There's always a change and it always is an iterative thing. But we really want to knock out these recommendations in the FOIA report, I'm sorry, in our report in terms of we’ve maintained the Technology Committee. And again, we made a ton of progress on a number of these things, but working on getting this scheduled out, assisting where we can. There's other folks working on these things as well, to make sure that operations of all size can have access to the same tools that Eric might have, or I might have, or other large agencies might have. Making sure that we're getting this information out that the AI piece is a great first step and then video redaction, FOIAonline and FOIAXpress. These things are going to roll out and roll out, roll out.
Serving at that body, that first putting information out on the NARA website, OGIS website, but then also serving as that go-to group where you’ve got a question, you’ve got something going on. You're not alone in the field. Again, a lot of this is about building a community. There's so many of us out there, 5,000 plus in this community, doing the same thing largely, right? It's not just drawing red boxes around things but we're all doing important things in terms of moving the transparency of our agencies forward because so many of us have great stories to tell about our agencies, the great work that’s going on at each of our agencies whether it be state or Veterans Health or NIH or wherever it may be. Being able to serve, to help you get that message out in that tech side is so critical.
Then part of that is what we're doing right here and soliciting, right? We're getting feedback from the Chief FOIA Officers today. We're getting feedback consistently and excellent feedback from Alina and Bobby and folks on their teams in terms of what directions we should be going on because again Alina and Bobby have so many inputs in terms of people going to them and they're able to help steer us and help us going in a great direction.
That number-driven folk is that we have on these working groups each person self-selecting and bringing their expertise to bear in a critical area of FOIA management and FOIA innovation. With that, I think we want to pivot exactly to that solicitation. We want to have that active dialog with our fellows in the FOIA community. Next slide, please.
We'd love to open it up and have as robust a dialog as possible in terms of any questions that folks may have, any things that you would like to know about the Technology Committee, things that we have coming up in our calendar, areas that we're working on, we're very happy to take questions. If we can't answer them, we're happy to get back to you on those topics.
ERIC F. STEIN: Great. I guess Alina and Bobby, are we going to answer some questions now or do we…?
ALINA M. SEMO: Yeah, that would be great. I'm actually going to turn to Lindsay because I think we've had a couple of questions at least come in through chat. Lindsay?
LINDSAY STEEL: Yes. We have a couple of questions. We also have a couple public comments come in which I'll hold till the end. Some of the questions may be directed to Bobby and Alina as well. I'll just read out what we have so far. In the meantime, if anyone would like to add a question in the chat, go ahead and do that.
One question about FOIA reporting. The question is, because many agencies have not had physical access to their FOIA tracking system, does OIP have plans to allow agencies to submit an amended Annual FOIA Report after the initial submission in November once agencies are able to access their tracking systems? Bobby, I'll leave that for you.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: Yes. I encourage you to just reach out to us directly so we can better understand the limitations. We'll work with each agency to be able to get them the final agency Annual Report reviewed and finalized and posted on time. Obviously, just knowing, and better understanding what the limitations are will probably help us. Anyone who has any FOIA reporting questions, please just reach out to us, our compliance team headed by Lindsay as standing by to assist agencies with both their Annual FOIA Report data and their Chief FOIA Officer reports.
LINDSAY STEEL: Great, thank you. We have a couple of questions about info and registration for the AI conference. I can go ahead and answer that. We're going to be announcing that information very soon. We don’t have registration available yet, but it will be within the next week. Thank you.
I believe that is all of the agency questions. We'll just give it one more moment if there are any additional agencies that have questions to enter in the chat. Otherwise, I'll turn it back over to you Alina.
ALINA M. SEMO: Lindsay, you said you had a question from one of our agencies in the IC?
LINDSAY STEEL: Yes. We did receive a question from somebody at ODNI just asking generally about how agencies are handling classified information during this pandemic and max telework situation. So, I don’t know if anyone wants to speak to that, but I know Eric and Mike, you spoke briefly about your working group.
ERIC F. STEIN: Sure, this is Eric. I know the IC is made up of several different agencies so it's hard to discuss this as one thing. I think each has their own respective FOIA programs. They have their own challenges they're facing. From what I found is that there are offices in different places but overall, the challenges they face with processing classified information in general, technology searching or similar to those that I've already covered previously.
I really don’t have anything else to add on that other than to say we do look forward to engaging with more employees in the government who work with classified information including IC agencies on those challenges pre-COVID, during COVID, and moving forward. I don’t know, Mike, do you have anything else to add?
MICHAEL SARICH: No, I think that’s right. I think this has been a tremendous learning experience for everyone in the FOIA community and not just in the FOIA community but in terms of having to do this from out of COVID and being able to access these things remotely. I know we were in a really quick learning curve to make this work and we were able to reach tremendous success this year. We're very fortunate due to the hard work of our folks all across our agency. Yeah, it's definitely a huge learning curve in areas that we're looking to add lessons learned and add contributions as we move forward in this process.
ALINA M. SEMO: I just want to take a second and give a shout out to some of our attendees who are actually Technology Committee members. Thank you for joining us. If any of you guys want to add anything to the discussion, anything that Eric and Mike should’ve said that they didn’t, which I'm sure is not the case, please feel free to talk. I've also been kind of remiss and I apologize for this, any of our agency friends who want to chime in orally, if you press #2 on your telephone line, you will be able to come through and our event producer, Michelle, can let you in. If you prefer not to type anything out and you just want to talk with us, that’s certainly an option as well. Go ahead.
MICHAEL SARICH: I was just going to say, yeah, that’s… we tried to stress this, I think, but it's really worth repeating, the real strength of the Committee is 45 plus members, the energy, and the direction that they bring. Eric and I just happen to be the guys that are lucky enough to be able to work with them. I mean, really the energy coming from the folks and working groups is what moves the ball forward and what is really transformative, I think, and what makes the group so indeed powerful in terms of the energy it's bringing and the real solutions that the folks on these committees want to bring to bear to the larger FOIA community.
Yeah, huge thanks to each and every one of the folks on the community and people that are considering joining the other Committees. Your commitment to move the ball forward in this field for all of us is fantastic. I mean, it really is transformative. We are FOIA, right? We're the people that decide what happens in this field and if we get together and move the ball forward together, then it's going to be a great field. If we don’t, it's going to be what it's going to be. But the people that dedicate their additional time and energy to making it better for everyone in the FOIA community is just fantastic.
ERIC F. STEIN: A huge gratitude to each and every one of them for that. I don’t know if there are any other comments, but Alina and Bobby, all the participants today and everyone, thank you for your time. I know we talked a lot about technology, but technology is… we need it now to be successful. It is I think worthy of the time it was merited. Appreciate the time we've taken and this opportunity. If there's nothing else, at least we want to say thank you. Really appreciate this opportunity today.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: Great. Thank you, Eric, and Mike, we all really appreciate it, and everyone on the Committee. This is really a great illustration of the success of the Council and your Committee's work has been incredible. I couldn’t agree more that technology was important in FOIA but even more so now.
ALINA M. SEMO: Mike and Eric, you promised to stick around in case people think of other questions before we end today. Thank you for that in advance. Martha tells me there are no questions from agency folks on the YouTube channel so far, but maybe folks are still thinking about things. But I think Bobby, if you're ready, we can now turn to the public comments portion of our program today. I know we're running a little bit early but maybe we'd give everyone half an hour back of the rest today at least. We have now reached the public comment part of our Council meeting. With that, we look forward to hearing from folks from the public who have ideas or comments to share. We will also be opening up all the telephone lines. Michelle, can you please provide the telephone instructions again for everyone.
EVENT PRODUCER: Absolutely. Ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question or comment via phone, please press #2 on your telephone keypad to enter the question or comment queue. You will hear a notification when your line is unmuted. At that time, please state your name and question. Once again, pressing #2 will enter you into the queue.
ALINA M. SEMO: Thanks, Michelle. Lindsay, I know we have a couple of public chat comments that we were saving until the end. I'm going to turn it over to you first.
LINDSAY STEEL: Great, thank you. The first public comment from Mr. [Kohl] Harrington. The comment is a bit long, but I will read it all. "OGIS states that the Chief FOIA Officers Council is charged with 'developing recommendations for increasing FOIA compliance and efficiency' yet when it comes to compliance with FOIA, it is difficult to understand how many people are processing requests at each agency. As Director Bobby Talebian of OIP claims, agencies are receiving more requests but are agencies also not hiring more necessary staff to ensure compliance with rising requests?
For example, recently, FDA provided me information that, due to an increase in the number of incoming requests, we may be unable to comply with the 20-day working time limit in this case, as well as the 10 additional days provided by the FOIA. But the FDA makes no mention that there are sometimes one person or two people processing requests at a specific agency such as FDA ORA FOIA or FDA CVM FOIA. So, FDA is not being fully truthful with this information they're putting out, further trying to blame the requester community. For compliance purposes, how can I understand how many government information specialists are processing FOIA requests at each agency?"
Then there's another comment that was submitted via YouTube that is related to this same one, so I'm going to read that as well, it continues, "Is there a number of employees that agencies should have in comparison to the number of FOIA requests received? For example, if FDA ORA is receiving hundreds of requests a month, yet only have two employees, is that considered proper in regard to compliance with FOIA.
I just don’t understand the talk of these meetings and compliance with FOIA when it seems like there's always understaffing issues but excuses from agencies are that there are 'too many requests' in regards to employees processing the request and the number of requests received per month. If there is no such thing, how can we all move towards getting this ratio at the top part of the FOIA compliance process?"
Then there's another question for the Tech Committee but I will pause on that to give maybe Bobby a chance to respond to this one.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: Thank you Lindsay. Yes, agencies have been working on tight resources and not just in the FOIA program. Resources is always something that we have to be able to address to be able to meet the FOIA demand and I think a lot of the work that we're doing in this Council is aimed at the best use of the resources that we have to get the most efficient and effective output of information through both FOIA and proactive disclosures.
There are detailed statistics in agencies' Annual FOIA Report on the number of personnel that they use in their FOIA, that have worked on their FOIA administration both in terms of full time FOIA professionals and the equivalent of full-time professionals that support the agency's FOIA program. You can get all of that information on FOIA.gov under the data section or on our website or the agency's website where they post their Annual FOIA Report.
As far as the ratio, I would say it's not necessarily a one-to-one for every agency so it'll depend on the complexity of the records they have, the volume of the records sometimes, and many of the complexities of the types of records that they have, and that can vary by agency. You really need to look at that. Each agency really needs to look at that individually to see what amount of resources they need to be able to succeed in their FOIA administration.
We have a lot of tools that help us do that, the FOIA assessment toolkit helps as far as making sure agencies have effective systems and they're reviewing whatever their resources and how they're being used. I would say that data's out there and we hope people will take advantage of it and look at all elements of the agency's FOIA administration. But as far as an equation, I would say that the proper amount of resources needed by the agency will necessarily vary by the nature of their FOIA program and records.
LINDSAY STEEL: Thank you. I'll read the next question from the same member of the public. It seems to be directed to the Technology Committee although it's possible that others may have input as well. The question is, would the Technology Committee ever consider building something for the requester community, the public/citizens, that is similar to MuckRock where we members of the public can always access already released FOIA documents?
ERIC F. STEIN: This is Eric. I think we definitely would want to hear more about what was envisioned. I know that there's some work by DOJ [inaudible] intake process and how requesters may… but then I don’t want to make a commitment we're not ready to make right now with regard to the FOIA library because there are a lot of groups looking at this already. Our Committee is not focused exclusively on the FOIA libraries or online reading rooms. But it's definitely something we'll be happy to discuss with OIP and OGIS if they think that we should take this on or if it's appropriate for different fora and groups to discuss.
ALINA M. SEMO: Thanks for that, Eric. I just want to add that the FOIA Advisory Committee's term, the third term, actually looked at this issue. We had some great interest from a particular member of the Committee to build this one-stop shopping kind of portal where all documents that have been publicly released by agencies could be posted. Unfortunately, the technology is just not there yet. I think FOIA.gov is definitely trying very hard to meet a lot of those needs by asking agencies to make their FOIA portals interoperable with FOIA.gov. Bobby, right? Am I speaking about that correctly?
BOBBY TALEBIAN: As far as the interoperability would be for the request submissions, as far as the giving access to the records already that'd been posted, that certainly is something that we're working on with regard to the additional access to the FOIA libraries. It's just one of the challenges of getting more information out there is the issue of 508 which is a really important working group on this Committee.
I think as we hit this at all angles, we're eventually getting to that point where agencies can proactively post more of the FOIA released records because we have more efficient ways of remediating these records and getting them posted online. On the other hand, FOIA.gov is allowing us to be able to search for and access these FOIA release records more efficiently and having them be more accessible. I think there's actually a number of initiatives now that we have that complement each other that'll get us to that point.
ALINA M. SEMO: Great, thanks.
LINDSAY STEEL: Thank you. All right. I will move on to the next question from Nate Jones at the Washington Post. The question is for Eric Stein. Secretary of State Pompeo has stated that he will soon release more of Secretary Clinton's emails. As Head of State FOIA and State Declass, did you play any role in this upcoming release? Was it conducted through the typical FOIA or declass process?
ERIC F. STEIN: Thank you for the question. I'm here today in my role as co-chair of this Technology Committee. Would be happy to just provide this response. Any questions about that matter should be referred to State Public Affairs and the phone number is 202-647-2492. Again, 202-647-2492. Or you can send them an email at PAPressDuty@state.gov. All of this information is publicly available on the state.gov website.
LINDSAY STEEL: Thanks, Eric. We had just a couple of follow up comments from Mr. [Kohl] Harrington saying that, “the technology is there” and then also “we want all records released to the public or as many as possible, always publicly available. Thanks for your time.” That concludes the questions from the WebEx at this time.
ALINA M. SEMO: Great. Lindsay, thanks so much. Before I turn it over to Martha, I think we have a couple of chat questions from the YouTube side. I want to ask our event producer, Michelle, is there anyone waiting on the telephone line to ask any question?
EVENT PRODUCER: There are currently no questions on the line. A reminder, ladies, and gentlemen, #2 will enter you into the verbal question queue.
ALINA M. SEMO: Okay, great, thanks so much. Martha, over to you for any questions.
MARTHA W. MURPHY: Sure. We got one from Mr. James Walker. He says, "Would you talk…" and this is I think for Eric and Michael, "Would you talk about how we in industry can engage? So many RPA solutions are available to take pressure off your FOIA teams."
ERIC F. STEIN: Mike, you want to take this one?
MICHAEL SARICH: Sure. Right. RPA, robotic process automation, being able to take those things that are repetitive and take them off of the FOIA processors' plates is critical, right? Anything that takes a FOIA officer away from doing a line by line analysis of a complex FOIA request implicating significant agency records to be released as part of the transparency mission is critical.
One of the things that we're looking at doing, and we talked about this as we talked about in the five recommendations, is venues and opportunities for folks on the industry side to work with FOIA professionals and really the vision there. What we envisioned is an active and robust dialog because, for example, industry could go and create things in a silo that may not work for folks on the ground doing FOIAs 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. But if we have an active dialog when we work with industry and we tell them exactly what our needs are, real honest dialog between FOIA practitioners that are deep in the weeds in this field or deep in this field and industry, it's incredible the synergy that can found there and the solutions that can happen.
Indeed, some of the things that we've had, some of the dialogs that we’ve had with our own copy producer for our systems has resulted in some innovations that are coming up in the next fiscal year and future iterations of that software. Yes, exactly, having that venue is critical and having that opportunity to work with them is critical. We're partnering with Alina and Bobby to make sure that all the Ts are crossed and Is are dotted on something of that scope and scale. But yes, that’s definitely something to look for in the coming attraction. Eric, anything you just want to add or Alina or Bobby to that as well?
ERIC F. STEIN: Just two quick points. I think we've been working with agencies too to talk about their program needs and then just big IT speak, IT requirements to make sure that, to Mike's point, that’s an… being able to list out those requirements that clearly matter. Then make sure whatever is being laid out matches with the network, the IT systems. Because there are a lot of solutions out there that can do a lot of things, but they have to be compatible and that’s always a challenge.
The other one is GSA has a lot of really great things already on its website. Then we've worked with OGIS and OIP just to see what's out there already for different tools and solutions. There are ways we're looking to engage with the private sector and the public on these points more. So yeah, as Mike said, stay tuned.
MARTHA W. MURPHY: Okay, I have one more question and it's a little unclear. We asked for some clarifications. We haven't received any back yet. Basically, this is meant for OIP. What area is the most requested for FOIA actions and what is the ballpark percentage of these overall requests? I'm not sure what they meant by what area.
ERIC F. STEIN: I'm not sure either but I would just re-emphasize the availability of a lot of this data in the Annual FOIA Reports as well as some helpful information on Chief FOIA Officer Reports. But in the Annual FOIA Report, you can see the number of requests each agency and each component of the agency is giving. Then detailed information about those requests. I'm not sure exactly what the caller is looking for as far as information. Obviously, each agency is responding to different variety of requests based off the records they have and their program missions. I think maybe the Annual Report data would be helpful with the individual asking that question.
MARTHA W. MURPHY: Okay, thank you. That’s all the questions we have from YouTube.
ALINA M. SEMO: Great. Thanks so much, Martha. I did have one other comment that I just wanted to mention from the ODNI friend who is asking that we remind everyone and especially members of the public who are watching today that it has not been easy for IC agencies during COVID to be processing documents due to of course the classified nature of their business and that timeframes for responses have been impacted greatly. I know that everyone is working as hard as they can under these constraints. I think the IC is asking for a little bit of patience and understanding from the public during these times.
ERIC F. STEIN: With that message, I'll just echo you. Part of our guidance and just encourage agencies to, in any way you can, convey the difficulties to the requesters so they have a better understanding of challenges that your agency might be facing because of the necessary workplace precautions and what you can and can't do. Agencies have been doing that on their website but also in acknowledgement letters and communications. Encouraging you to continue to do that. We just want to be transparent as possible and also work with requesters the best we can.
ALINA M. SEMO: Yes, communication is very, very important. That's one of the things that OGIS always tells folks, so I want to second that. Lindsay, any other questions that might be lurking out there?
LINDSAY STEEL: No additional questions. No. Alina, I saw that the item that might be a question but it's not clear that that person is an attendee. If anyone does have any questions about the Annual FOIA Report, please contact us. Thank you.
ALINA M. SEMO: Great. That sounds great. All right, Bobby, any parting thoughts? I think we're at the end of our session.
BOBBY TALEBIAN: Yes. I just wanted to thank you. I want to thank Eric and Mike and thank all who are joining us. This is a really great meeting, and we look forward to the next meeting, having another good agenda and work of the Technology Committee and the new work of our new committee.
ALINA M. SEMO: Yeah. I definitely want to echo what Bobby said. Thanks to everyone today for attending our Council meeting. Thanks in advance to those of you who have already volunteered to work on the new committee or are thinking about it, so don’t be shy. I hope everyone who's joining us today continues to remain safe, healthy, and resilient for you and your families. We will reconvene in 2021 with future dates of Council meetings to be announced soon. Please stay tuned for that. If there are no other comments or questions, we can adjourn this Council meeting today. Thank you very much, everyone.
ERIC F. STEIN: Thank you guys. Thank you, everyone.
ALINA M. SEMO: Bye.
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