A few months ago, we announced that the OGIS Compliance Team is reviewing agencies’ use of “still interested” letters to manage—and sometimes administratively close—backlogged Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. While our work on this topic is not yet complete, we remain very “interested” in this topic.
A coalition of open government groups first raised the issue with us in October 2014, explaining that these letters are sometimes the first communication that requesters have received about their requests in months (or, in some cases, years). The coalition noted that agencies often give requesters only a few days to indicate their continued interest in the request. On the other hand, agencies explain that these letters are a useful way to make sure that they don’t waste resources processing records that requesters no longer want.
The Compliance Team has reviewed available statistics on the use of these letters and launched an effort to gather information on how they are used by particular agencies. One of the difficulties with this work is that agencies report the use of these letters in a variety of ways and it can be hard to distinguish cases closed by the use of “still interested” letters from other administrative closures. While we originally hoped to complete our report before the end of the calendar year, the information collection process has taken longer than anticipated. We expect to release our report before the end of March.
In addition to launching the government-wide review of the use of “still interested” letters, our Compliance Team has evaluated use of the letters as part of our agency compliance review process. You can learn more about how the Federal Emergency Management Agency and United States Coast Guard are using “still interested” letters by reading each agency’s FOIA compliance report. Future evaluations—including our soon-to-be-released report on the Transportation Security Administration—will also look at the use of “still interested” letters. We also brought to the Department of Homeland Security’s Chief FOIA Officer’s attention the use of “still interested” letters by a DHS component that was outside of existing Department of Justice guidance on the issue.
Do you have any feedback on the use of “still interested” letters, or other issues that the OGIS Compliance Team should review? Let us know in the comments section!