As we reported last week, data on the historical use of “still interested” letters cannot capture the full effect that the letters have on FOIA requesters but show that agencies close very few requests using these letters. For Part 2 of our review of still interested letters, we followed up with seven FOIA programs to learn more about how these letters were used.
Still interested correspondence is a letter or an email an agency sends to requesters requiring them to affirm that they remain interested in the requested records. Typically, the correspondence informs requesters that the request will be closed unless they respond by a certain date.
As noted in Part 1 of our assessment, one of the difficulties of using available data to evaluate use of still interested letters is that there is no guidance on how agencies should report requests closed using still interested letters. While some agencies clearly reported using still interested letters, others described administrative closures such as “no response from requester” or “unable to locate requester” that might be related to a still interested letter. We also noted that agencies could possibly have reported requests closed using still interested letters as “withdrawn.”
Part 2 of our assessment used data from agencies’ Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Annual FOIA Reports to identify the FOIA programs in which the actual or apparent use of still interested letters might have the greatest effect on requesters. To ensure that we captured all requests that might have been closed using still interested letters, we reviewed data on all administrative closures described in a way that might be connected to still interested letters plus all requests reported as withdrawn. At the seven FOIA programs we identified, we asked a series of questions about their use of still interested letters, and how they report them.
Similar to our results from Part 1, we found that despite the fact that we targeted FOIA programs whose use of still interested letters might have the greatest effect on requesters and that we included requests that were likely not closed using still interested letters in our data, the FOIA programs we reviewed closed relatively few requests possibly using these letters. Of the 46,019 requests the FOIA programs we reviewed processed in FY 2014, about 5.5 percent (2,535 requests) were closed using a method that might be related to a still interested letter.
Despite the relatively small number of requests closed, the letters frustrate requesters who receive them and can give the appearance that an agency’s FOIA process does not work.
We also found that despite our observed inconsistencies in how federal agencies used these letters, all of the FOIA programs we interviewed informed us that their current use of the letters is in line with guidance issued by the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice (DOJ). We also note however, that the FOIA programs reported variations in how requests closed using still interested letters are reported and that the programs did not have written policies regarding how the letters should be used.
We will issue recommendations regarding our observations on the use of still interested letters in a subsequent report.