With 100 departments and agencies, the Executive Branch can feel downright massive sometimes. Although each of the 100 has a separate and distinct mission, and no doubt creates very different kinds of records, there is also some overlap in the way agencies operate and with the records they keep.
Since its start, OGIS has been a resource for the same or similar requests that span more than one agency. While we aren’t here to direct agencies on how to respond to a request — we are, after all, a neutral third party to the FOIA process — we have found benefits for both agencies and requesters by facilitating the exchange of information on these multi-agency requests.
- The information exchange lets agencies know that others are processing the same request and gives the FOIA professionals the opportunity to discuss any sticky issues they have identified and to share strategies for responding to the request.
- Agencies may be processing these requests with differing results, so a discussion lets them share that up front so there are no surprises if they aren’t acting in concert.
- It gives requesters one point of contact — OGIS — rather than dozens of different FOIA professionals at multiple agencies.
As the FOIA Ombudsman, OGIS has worked through a handful of these cases, brought by both agencies and requesters. Here are a couple examples:
- Contractor performance data: a FOIA requester asked for performance scores and narratives for government contractors from more than 40 agencies. Responses varied from full releases to partial withholding to full withholding — to no response at all. The exemptions cited varied as well. OGIS invited any interested agency representatives to join in a discussion in which they shared how they arrived at their results and discussed the potential harm in release. In the end, some additional agencies decided to release some or all of the information while other agencies determined that a different exemption may have been more appropriate. Still others did not change their position at all. In the end, all the agencies were aware of their differing responses.
- Agency travel data: this requester asked for various agency travel records dating back 10 years for more than 60 agencies. OGIS gathered agency contacts who explained that they weren’t sure exactly what the requester was seeking, and they weren’t sure how to retrieve the data since most agencies work through contractors to maintain their massive travel databases. OGIS worked with the requester to come up with a targeted list of fields he was seeking and provided it to interested agencies. OGIS also worked with agencies on strategies to collect the data from their vendors. Agencies shared their methods with one another and dozens of agencies were able to provide the records.
OGIS has begun hearing from requesters before they file multi-agency requests to give us a heads up that they’re coming. In other cases, it’s an agency getting in touch to say it has heard that other agencies have the same request. Sometimes it makes sense to get agencies together to discuss; other times, there are no real issues to work through — yet. But it’s good to get everyone looped in nonetheless.
One of OGIS’s April 2012 Recommendations to Improve FOIA was to increase awareness about OGIS’s role for these types of requests. The recommendation addresses the value in coordinating efforts for these requests. The office stands ready to continue assisting in these cases, so please be in touch if you think this situation might apply to you.