Since late last summer, the OGIS Compliance Team has been taking a close look at a controversial practice that some agencies use to close Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The term “still interested letter” is shorthand for correspondence an agency sends to requesters requiring them to affirm that they remain interested in the requested records. Typically, this type of correspondence informs requesters that the request will be closed unless they respond by a certain deadline.
Today we release part one of our analysis of the use of still interested letters by agencies: a look at historical trends in the use of these letters by the 15 Cabinet-level agencies. We analyzed data from FOIA Annual Reports to the Attorney General of the United States for 17 fiscal years (FY 1998 – FY 2014), including the number of requests the agency reported closing using still interested letters, the number of requests processed, and the number of requests pending closure.
One over-arching lesson we learned is that it is hard to measure the effect still interested letters have on FOIA requesters. This report shows that the number of FOIA requests Cabinet-level agencies reported closing using still interested letters accounts for less than 1 percent of the number of requests processed in all but one of the 17 fiscal years we reviewed. However, the report also discussed the difficulty in getting a true picture of how often these letters are used because there is no guidance or standard for reporting requests closed using still interested letters.
The report also recognizes that available data does not capture requester frustration about the use of still interested letters. Ironically, the requesters most likely to be annoyed by correspondence of this type—those who wish for their requests to remain open, and respond by the agency’s deadline—will never show up in data about the number of requests closed using still interested letters. As the report points out, available data does not show how long the agency gives requesters to respond or how many times a requester is sent a still interested letter before records are finally processed.
Despite the limitations of the data, the report draws some interesting conclusions about the use of these letters. In addition to shedding light onto the number of requests that agencies report as closing using still interested letters, we were also able to test the hypothesis that agencies use still interested letters to reduce their backlogs. Our research suggests that using still interested letters to reduce a backlog is an ineffective strategy: we found only three instances in which the use of still interested letters resulted in a greater than 3 percent reduction in pending requests at the end of the fiscal year.
OGIS’s Compliance Team considers the use of still interested letters to merit further study. The OGIS Compliance Team continues to assess an agency’s use of these letters as part of our agency assessments. We will issue further reports and recommendations on still interested letters as practicable.