Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at Sunshine Week 2022 Celebration
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
(STL.News) Thank you, Bobby for your warm introduction. And Bobby, I truly appreciate your leadership of the Office of Information Policy (OIP) and the guidance that you provide to the Department of Justice and agencies across the federal government as we fulfill our obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
It is a pleasure to join you and to help kick off the department’s annual celebration of Sunshine Week. Every year, we celebrate the importance of government transparency during the week of President James Madison’s birthday. President Madison emphasized the fundamental importance of access to government information and an engaged citizenry to our democracy. In 1882, he famously wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
The passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 marked an historic milestone in our nation’s path toward ensuring that our government is open, transparent and accountable. The FOIA established a legal right of access to government records and a presumption of disclosure, requiring records to be released to any member of the public, unless one of the FOIA’s exemptions applies. At its core, the FOIA fosters public trust: trust that those who are charged with faithfully executing the laws are in fact doing so with integrity and in the public’s interest.
As the Associate Attorney General, I am privileged to serve as the department’s Chief FOIA Officer. I take this obligation seriously – throughout my career outside of government, I have relied on the FOIA’s disclosure mandates and have seen firsthand the critical role that the FOIA plays in ensuring the public’s access to government records. It is through the FOIA that journalists, advocates and the public remain informed well enough to make real our ideal of a democracy governed by the people and for the people.
The government dedicates substantial resources to implementing the FOIA. Every year, agencies receive and process between 700,000 to 800,000 requests, releasing millions of pages of records to the public. Indeed, just last year, the government processed 838,688 requests. The FOIA also requires agencies to proactively disclose certain categories of records, and just last year the government posted over 32 million proactive disclosures on its websites.
We at the department are always looking to improve our FOIA implementation. I want to thank the Attorney General for his leadership and support of the FOIA mission both here at the department and across government, and we are excited that later this week, the Attorney General will be issuing new guidelines that underscore our commitment to administering the FOIA with a presumption of openness.
The Department of Justice has taken a hard look at various aspects of its FOIA implementation. For example, over the past three decades, it had been the policy of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to require individuals in immigration court to file a FOIA request in order to obtain a copy of their own records of court proceedings. Such a process created burdens on individuals in immigration courts in obtaining such records. Just last week, EOIR changed its policy so that parties can obtain their records of proceedings directly from the immigration courts or Board of Immigration Appeals, without requiring them to make a request under the FOIA. By helping to mitigate barriers to parties’ obtaining their records, this change in policy will promote parties’ access to justice within the immigration court system. The department will continue to seek ways to ensure that the public can access disclosable information as quickly and efficiently as possible.
In addition to our efforts to ensure transparency by the Department of Justice, we take very seriously our responsibility to encourage government-wide compliance with FOIA. The department offers comprehensive training and policy guidance to help agencies fulfill their FOIA responsibilities. The department’s Office of Information Policy, or OIP, has issued guidance on a range of key FOIA topics including FOIA administration during the pandemic, the impact of key court decisions on FOIA and areas in which agencies can focus on improvement.
Over the past two years, in response to the pandemic, OIP has expanded its trainings to include virtual courses that, last year alone, had over 5,750 registrants. In addition, any agency can request trainings on issues that impact the agency, and OIP will provide tailored trainings to address those agency-specific questions.
We are also excited for OIP to release new e-learning training modules that provide FOIA training for the entire government workforce. These interactive FOIA training modules will provide three separate training courses designed specifically for senior executives, federal employees and FOIA professionals.
In addition to these trainings, OIP regularly brings FOIA professionals together at its best practices workshops, which allow agencies to share experiences, lessons learned and strategies for success in specific areas of FOIA administration. This past year OIP hosted two best practices workshops focused on FOIA administration during the pandemic for both intelligence community (IC) and non-IC community agencies.
The department is proud to support other agencies in their implementation of FOIA by providing a number of other key resources, such as the Department of Justice Guide to the FOIA and summaries of new FOIA decisions, and offering individualized counsel to agencies on the application of the act. In 2021, OIP fielded over 600 calls from agencies for guidance on the FOIA.
Finally, OIP oversees agency compliance with the FOIA by, among other things, reviewing and summarizing the Chief FOIA Officer Reports submitted by agencies to the Department of Justice. This year marks the 12th year that agency Chief FOIA Officers have reported to the Department of Justice and identified key steps they have taken improve FOIA administration. Specifically, agencies are required to report how they (1) apply a presumption of openness in the administration of the FOIA; (2) ensure effective systems are in place to respond to requests; (3) increase proactive disclosures; (4), utilize technology; and (5) improve timeliness and reduce FOIA backlogs. Bobby will share some examples of the work illustrated in this year’s reports. The impressive efforts agencies detailed in each of the five sections of the Chief FOIA Officer Reports are admirable and should serve as an example for us to continue to build upon.
The department has long held that the “FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.” This work could not be done without the dedicated FOIA professionals who work with requesters day in and day out. These professionals are often tasked with conducting complex searches and detailed reviews of millions of pages. They work scrupulously to balance the FOIA’s presumption of disclosure with safeguarding important interests such as personal privacy and national security.
I recognize that the past two years have been particularly challenging as FOIA professionals, like the rest of the country, have had to adapt to challenges associated with the pandemic. I take great pride in serving as the Department of Justice’s Chief FOIA Officer, and we in leadership appreciate your work on behalf of the American people – your work lies at the heart of keeping our government open and transparent and ensuring that this democracy of ours always works on behalf of the public. Later in the program we will recognize the outstanding work of some of your colleagues, and we hope their work will serve as an example to all of us in public service.
I want to thank you again for joining us today for our celebration of Sunshine Week and for your dedication to public service. Here at the department, we remain committed to providing federal agencies and members of the public with a range of resources to assist in the efficient and timely administration of the FOIA. Your work is the sunlight required for an open and accountable government – it strengthens our democracy.
Thank you all and have a very bright Sunshine Week.