OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet opened our doors for the first time on September 9, 2009. Though it feels like those five years flashed by, we’ve accomplished quite a bit as one of the newest offices at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Here are just a few of the achievements we’re celebrating this month:
- We’ve helped resolve—and prevent—Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disputes: Congress established OGIS to provide mediation services to resolve FOIA disputes between requesters and agencies. Director Nisbet found requests for mediation services waiting for her on the day she opened the office, and the demand for this service has remained extremely strong—around 4,000 requests for assistance, ranging from simple telephone and email inquiries to disputes requiring more structured facilitations. In providing mediation services, we advocate not for the requester or the agency but for the FOIA process.
- We’ve reviewed FOIA practices: OGIS also is directed to review agencies’ FOIA policies, procedures and compliance. In our first five years, we’ve done this in a number of ways, including reviewing agency FOIA regulations (so far, we have reviewed about a quarter of all departments and agencies); highlighting the agency best practices we see in our work; reviewing and suggesting improvements to FOIA web sites and template letters; and working with agencies when we observe, through our mediation work, policies or procedures that are not consistent with FOIA law or policy, or that may be different from the practices occurring at other agencies.
- We’ve trained others: OGIS staffers have made dozens of presentations about the importance of communicating with requesters and agency colleagues to resolve and prevent FOIA disputes. We also developed a day-long Dispute Resolution Skills for FOIA Professionals training program, through which hundreds of FOIA professionals have learned ways to resolve and avoid FOIA disputes.
- We’ve made recommendations for improving FOIA to Congress and the President: OGIS has issued 11 recommendations, five in April 2012 that we put together in our first years, four additional recommendations in 2013 and two in 2014. Seven of these recommendations require ongoing work by OGIS, including some in conjunction with agency partners and other stakeholders. Two recommendations focus on actions to be taken by other federal agencies. The remaining two recommend White House action.
- We’ve reported on our work: OGIS has published an annual report each year that includes a detailed look at our accomplishments. Director Nisbet also testified before Congress every year on our observations, as well as our recommendations for improving FOIA. We’ve recently begun posting the letters we send upon closing individual OGIS mediation services cases. The letters provide valuable insight into the kinds of cases we handle and how we resolve them.
So what do the next five years have in store for OGIS? While we’ve learned to stay nimble and expect the unexpected, there are two efforts that we’re most excited about. First, we’re launching our expanded review program. Look for updates on our first reviews of agency FOIA programs in the coming weeks, with more to follow in FY 2015. Second, we’re focused on our role in the National Action Plan, particularly our support of the FOIA Advisory Committee. We can’t wait to see what this group of experts comes up with.
Finally, keep an eye out for an announcement of a special event celebrating OGIS’s first five years and the impact our office has had on the Federal FOIA landscape.
Thank you for your interest and support over the last five years. We look forward to continuing to serve as the Federal FOIA ombudsman.