Note: This entry is another in our series of occasional blog posts providing updates on our efforts to implement new provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law by President Obama on June 30, 2016.
As we shared with you last week, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 significantly expands OGIS’s involvement in the FOIA process. Prior to the change in the law, agencies were encouraged to alert requesters to our ability to mediate FOIA disputes in final letters responding to an appeal; now, agencies are required to let requesters know about their right to seek assistance from the agency’s FOIA Public Liaison or OGIS at several points in the FOIA process.
In anticipation of our expanded role in the FOIA process, we recently encouraged agencies to make it easier for requesters to ask for our assistance. Because FOIA case files generally include personally identifiable information that is protected by the Privacy Act of 1974 (PA), an agency is not allowed to routinely share a FOIA file with another agency unless it obtains the requester’s consent for a file to be shared or notifies the public by updating its PA Systems of Records Notice (SORN) to include routine-use language for OGIS. If an agency has not published a Privacy Act SORN letting the public know that its files might be shared with us, we must first obtain written authorization from the requester before we can discuss his or her request with the agency.
We have contacted a number of departments and agencies to ask that they reduce the burden on requesters seeking our assistance by amending their FOIA/PA SORN to include a routine use for OGIS. We’ve made progress, and are happy to say that 13 Cabinet-level departments and 11 agencies (including the Social Services Administration which published its notice earlier today) have revised their SORNs to include this routine use. You can find a list of all of the departments and agencies that have revised their FOIA/PA SORNs and included a routine use for OGIS here: https://ogis.archives.gov/mediation-program/request-assistance/routine-uses.htm
We kicked our efforts to encourage other agencies to make it easier for requesters to ask for our help into a higher gear this summer. Starting in May, we sent a letter to agencies we had previously contacted but had not yet acted to re-iterate our request to update their FOIA/PA SORN and to respond to our request within the next month. In addition to re-contacting agencies we had previously asked to update their SORN, we also contacted agencies that processed at least 100 requests in the prior year that had not previously heard from us about the Privacy Act SORN issue. We also committed to posting all of our letters we issued to the agencies on this topic and any agency’s response on our website.
As you can see from our website, several additional agencies have already assured us that they plan to make it easier for requesters to ask for our help. We look forward to adding these agencies to the list of agencies that do not require requesters to authorize us to discuss their requests with the agency, and will continue to follow up with agencies and post any updates to our website.