If you’ve called OGIS, had a case with us or read this blog, you’ve probably heard the mantra: “We’re from the government and we’re here to help!”
We’ve heard from hundreds of people seeking assistance — on everything from the expected — FOIA delays, denials, fees and exemption use — to the unexpected — employee grievances, age-discrimination lawsuits, veterans’ benefits and citizenship snafus.
Often, people in the midst of difficult times use a variety of tools — including FOIA — to try and help solve their problems. FOIA and the issue at hand become inextricably tangled in their minds, and by the time they get to OGIS, these customers are frustrated — and often ticked. As we listen to their stories or comb through what they’ve sent to us, we separate the wheat — FOIA issues that OGIS was created to help with — from the chaff — issues OGIS can’t help with. And we let customers know that although we recognize the importance of their non-FOIA grievances, we can’t help them with anything other than their requests for access to Federal information.
Even among customers who understand how FOIA works and who don’t bring other issues to OGIS, we have to set expectations. That’s particularly the case in regard to what OGIS can — and can’t — do as we work to improve the FOIA process and resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and federal agencies.
- Order an agency to release records;
- Request that an OGIS customer be moved to the front of a FOIA request queue;
- Order an agency to hurry up and process a request or appeal;
- Demand that agencies — or requesters — participate in formal mediation; or
- Order an agency to modify or discontinue a FOIA policy.
There are other areas in which OGIS sets expectations. Every FOIA issue brought to OGIS is not meant for our involvement — and sometimes we have to tell people that we cannot help. If a requester comes to OGIS upset because an agency hasn’t processed his or her request after 30 days and it’s at an agency with a huge backlog, OGIS faces the unenviable task of explaining that the requester likely won’t get the requested records for another, say, four months. Though such conversations can be difficult, OGIS urges agencies to set expectations with their FOIA customers. From a customer’s perspective, hearing that a response may not be ready for another couple months is not good news, but it’s certainly better than hearing nothing at all — and wondering whether the request disappeared into the ether.
Setting expectations is important for OGIS which doesn’t wield a big club and works to resolve disputes by getting parties together to reach a compromise. OGIS continuously explores ways to improve the implementation of our mission. What do you think about the current scope of OGIS’s statutory mission? How can OGIS improve its processes?