Here’s a bit of good news for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters at the State Department: late last week we received a letter letting us know about the steps the agency has taken to bring its use of still interested letters to close FOIA requests in line with guidance from the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice.
As we have previously explained, still interested letters are a source of frustration for requesters. We described how OIP’s most recent guidance on the use of the letters addressed many of the requester’s frustrations, and recommended steps that an agency should take to make sure that its actions are in line with OIP’s policy. Finally, we recommended that OGIS continue to monitor how agencies use these letters, and provide agency officials feedback on their use.
In late May we contacted the State Department’s Chief FOIA Officer, Joyce Barr, to discuss still interested inquiries that we learned were recently sent out by the State Department; those letters gave requesters far fewer days to respond that the 30 working day deadline recommended in OIP’s guidance. Requesters express particular aggravation when agencies give them only a few days to respond before administratively closing a request – particularly when the request has been pending at the agency for months or even years without a response.
According to the response from Ms. Barr, the State Department has since updated its procedures and guidance and senior management of the State Department’s FOIA Program have informed FOIA staff that requesters should be given at least 45 days to respond to still interested inquiries. The State Department also sent written guidance to all FOIA employees who draft still interested letters; OGIS recommends the development and distribution of written guidance on the use of still interested letters.
We are happy to hear about the State Department’s actions and hope that it will help improve communication between the agency and its requesters!