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FOIA and Open Government

Freedom of Information Act and Open Government.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Program at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is located in the Office of Policy Coordination and operates under the authority of the Assistant USTR for Policy Coordination, who is the Chief FOIA Officer for the Agency.  The FOIA Program is managed by the Chief FOIA officer with a FOIA specialist and a FOIA Attorney.  Together they provide guidance to the Agency's 240 employees on FOIA policy, including the new presumption of openness outlined in the Attorney General's FOIA guidelines, dated March 19, 2009.

On receipt of a FOIA request, the FOIA specialist transmits the request by e-mail to the action Assistant USTR(s) who has 48 hours to name the person on his/her staff that will be responsible for the FOIA.  The FOIA specialist adds the FOIA to the FOIA log, and transmits the due date to the action officer.  At a weekly FOIA meeting of the Chief FOIA Officer, the specialist and the attorney, the status of all FOIAs is reviewed and the action offices are contacted to ascertain if they are on course to complete the FOIA.

In the new Administration, several changes have been made to the FOIA program to make it more responsive to the public.  The President's FOIA Memorandum and the Attorney General's FOIA guidelines have been discussed in Senior Staff meetings to ensure that all managers understand the presumption of openness.  The USTR and the General Counsel have underscored the importance of transparency throughout the Agency, and particularly in the FOIA program.  To be sure that the Attorney General's guidelines were well understood, USTR contacted the Justice Department to arrange for a training session by two of their attorneys.  Each USTR unit designated at least one individual to attend the training and to brief their office mates.

To respond to FOIA requests with more accurate information and in a timelier manner, the USTR FOIA Staff instituted a process of contacting requestors with the relevant USTR staff present to achieve a precise understanding of the scope of the request.   If the request is overly broad, USTR will seek to narrow it to match the requestor's interest, and, therefore respond with more accurate information.  In addition, USTR has instituted a policy of having a FOIA staff member personally review every individual exemption for openness with the responding office in every FOIA request.

In order to fully automate the FOIA program and cut down on processing time for FOIA requests, USTR is has identified four new electronic tools.  The first is “Voice”, a new correspondence tracking system.   Using “Voice”, the FOIA clerk will alert the Executive Secretary to incoming FOIAs and their due dates.  The system will in turn notify relevant AUSTR(s) and will help enumerate the steps required to respond properly and thoroughly to FOIA requests.  The second tool we are currently deploying is an Adobe-based redaction tool.  This tool will save time, improve efficiency, improve consistency, and facilitate Holder reviews by allowing staff to undo / redo redactions as necessary.  The third tool is “Clearwell” which is currently being rolled out to the components of EOP and is a powerful search tool that will be employed by USTR to facilitate searches.  A fourth tool is WIKI.  This tool will be used primarily for training.  Each step of the FOIA process can be viewed in complete “how-to” videos on the USTR WIKI page.

USTR is pledged to reduce its backlog by 10 percent a year, as called for by this Administration, which will bring its backlog to 17.  USTR will monitor this goal on a monthly basis to ensure that it is met in FY 2010.  In 2008, USTR undertook a three year backlog reduction plan which is available here.  The Obama Administration's goal exceeds this earlier benchmark.