FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting Focuses on the Use of Technology in FOIA Processing; Access to Congressional Records and Reports

Yesterday (3/3/2021), the quarterly meeting of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee focused on the question of whether the FOIA should apply to Legislative and Judicial branch records. The committee heard briefings from public interest groups on this issue, as well as general reports from subcommittees about their priorities.

The Technology Subcommittee continues to explore technological standards and best practice recommendations for federal agency programs, large and small. Their end goal of preparing an impartial report on various technology solutions available for agencies to use is a first step toward modernizing the workflow processes.

The Process Subcommittee is also studying how the use of advanced technologies can impact agency FOIA programs. They intend to study how structural incentives can aid long-term efficiencies and improvements. These activities are consistent with the Public Interest Declassification Board’s (PIDB) recommendations for modernizing business processes that, at its center, include use of advanced technology.

The Classification Subcommittee is beginning its study of the impact of classification on FOIA processes. In an effort to increase transparency, they are exploring the use of GLOMAR responses when an agency cannot confirm or deny the existence of records responsive to the request. 

The FACA invited two presenters to discuss the records access processes in the Legislative and Judicial Branches. Daniel Schuman, Policy Director of the Demand Progress/Demand Progress Education Fund, discussed his organization’s recommendations for enhancing Legislative branch transparency. Mr. Schuman discussed ways to enhance Legislative branch transparency that parallel PIDB recommendations for secrecy reform across the Executive branch. In particular, he recognized the need for Congress to make enacted laws and Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports available online in machine-readable formats, such as HTML. This recommendation aligns with recommendations to improve access to significant government records and to adopt metadata standards that facilitate interagency declassification review and public access. These recommendations were included in several PIDB Reports: A Vision for the Digital Age: Modernizing the U.S. National Security Classification and Declassification System (2020); The Importance of Technology in Classification and Declassification (2016) and Transforming the Security Classification System (2012). Schuman’s recommendations for enhancing public access to CRS reports also reflected Congressional debates on this issue reported in blogs by Steven Aftergood for the Federation of American Scientists (see: “Bill Would Authorize Release of CRS Reports,” 2016).

Michael Lissner, Executive Director of the Free Law Project brought to light the breadth of records maintained in the Judicial branch and the access challenges to those records.  Many of the access challenges with these records mirror those found in the legislative branch.

Video of the March 3, 2021, FOIA Advisory Committee meeting is available on the NARA YouTube channel, here; to see presentation slides and the meeting agenda, visit the FOIA Advisory Committee website, here.

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