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!
2 thoughts on “An Update: Our Work on the Use of “Still Interested” Letters”
I have not received such a letter (in fact, I have not submitted any FOIA requests). However, it occurs to me that you could perhaps include a URL and a QR code of that URL that the requestor could go to to indicate their continued interest in the request (if such does not already exist, of course). This could reduce time and effort spent on data entry; smartphones which have QR code software could be easily used to indicate interest without requiring additional postage or the use of additional paper, and the inclusion of the text URL that the QR code points to would allow people with internet access but no phones to do the same.
Also, if a request is administratively closed because the letter was never received or responded to, is there a way to reopen the request with its original priority? This kind of alteration to the FOIA process seems a bit dodgy (imagine an agency which pushes certain requests to the back of the queue, issues “still interested” letters as of given dates, and then there are printing and mailing delays such that the response time expires before the requestor ever receives the letter). Being able to regain the original priority on administratively-closed requests seems to make it less likely that this mechanism could be used maliciously.
In another post, could you explain where I would send a request for documents pertaining to your agency’s determination that such letters are authorized by FOIA? I think it’s an excellent idea (if nothing else, it reminds people that they still have outstanding requests and that they have not been forgotten by their government), but I also think it could be a large enough change to the procedure that the Congress might wish to approve it if it has not already. I can’t really see any real reason they could argue with it, but because I have not been elected to the Congress I think it’s inappropriate for me to state that with any confidence.
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