As we have discussed the last few weeks, still interested letters are a source of great frustration for many Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters and can give requesters the appearance that an agency’s FOIA process does not work.
For those of you new to the issue, still interested letters refer to correspondence that an agency sends to requesters asking if they are still interested in the requested records. Typically, this correspondence includes a date by which the agency expects to hear back from the requester; hearing nothing, the agency closes the request.
Our review of the use of still interested letters by agencies (see Part 1 and Part 2 of our assessment) revealed two key findings:
- while available data suggests that few requests are closed using still interested letters, the data does not capture key elements of these letters that frustrate requesters, including the delay in an agency’s response to the request prior to sending a still interested letter, the amount of time the requester is given to respond, or how many times a requester is sent still interested letters before the request is processed; and
- there is no guidance regarding how agencies should report requests closed using still interested letters, and agencies report these administrative closures in a variety of ways.
OGIS issued recommendations to address these findings in Part 3 of our report. The recommendations include steps that agencies, OGIS, and the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice can take to reduce requester frustration with these letters, and make it easier for FOIA managers, Congress, and the public to understand how often these letters are used to close FOIA requests. Among our recommendations is that agencies regularly communicate with requesters about the status of their requests—thus alleviating the need for the use of still interested letters. We also recommend better reporting on the use of still interested letters.
Although we do not expect to issue any further reports on the use of still interested letters, we will continue to monitor how agencies use these letters. As discussed in our recommendations, OGIS will continue evaluating the use of still interested letters in our agency FOIA compliance reports and, when warranted, bring to the attention of agency Chief FOIA Officers any instances of non-compliance with OIP guidance on still interested letters.
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