Preventing FOIA Disputes

In addition to providing services that help Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters and Federal agencies in resolving disputes, one of the goals of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) is to prevent FOIA disputes from arising in the first place. In line with this goal, OGIS recently issued its first advisory opinion, providing agencies with useful advice on effective communication with requesters to help them navigate through the FOIA process and the resources available to them.

OGIS is the Federal FOIA Ombudsman. The office, created within the National Archives, opened its doors in 2009 to educate the public about FOIA, resolve FOIA disputes, and assess agency compliance with the statute. OGIS’s advisory opinion is based on its observations through its now robust mediation program. OGIS’s mediation program brings the office into contact with a broad range of Federal agencies and requesters at various points throughout the FOIA process. This unique lens enables OGIS to identify common causes of FOIA disputes and identify practices that can help avoid disputes.

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 requires that agencies let requesters know about the availability of dispute resolution services from agency FOIA Public Liaisons and OGIS at several points in the FOIA process. After the law’s enactment OGIS’ caseload increased significantly.  A common trend noted among several cases was the need for better communication between the agency and the requester.

OGIS’s first advisory opinion takes the communication issues OGIS noted in its individual cases and gathers it together to provides agencies with advice to help better communicate with requesters about the FOIA process: how to preserve their administrative rights to challenge an agency’s decisions, the kinds of assistance they can expect from an agency FOIA Public Liaison and OGIS, and the next steps to take if they need additional assistance with a request. The advisory opinion also provides agencies with specific examples of language and format.

This advisory opinion is a starting point. OGIS intends to use its authority to issue advisory opinions to address the most common disputes, complaints, and trends it sees in its dispute resolution practice that are likely to lead to litigation. Over time, OGIS intends to build a body of advisory opinions, available for online consultation by both requesters and agencies that OGIS believes will help head off disputes before they fester or lead to litigation.

This entry was posted in Leadership, Open Government, Transparency and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Preventing FOIA Disputes

  1. johncpowers says:

    This is a great first step in helping both the public and agencies and I would consider this a “best practice” for agencies to implement. I applaud OGIS for creating Advisory Opinions as a way to help inform users. From an agency perspective, these Opinions have the ability to help programs be more effective and efficient. From the public’s perspective, the Opinions have the ability to help inform their requests, manage expectations, and allow for continued communication and dialogue with a “real person.” These Opinions are much like the Information Security Oversight Office’s “ISOO Notices” which are designed to help users of the classification system. While these Notices are geared towards agency programs, many of the Notices impact the public as they relate to agency declassification policies and practices.

    Congratulations OGIS!

Leave a Reply