Almost a year ago we published our report on recommendations to improve the transparency of the use of “still interested” letters to administratively close FOIA requests and reduce requester frustration with the practice. Our recommendations were based on findings of an in-depth review of historical annual FOIA report data and interviews with selected FOIA programs regarding their policies and practices.
For those of you who are not familiar with them, still interested letters is a generic phrase used to refer to correspondence from an agency asking a requester to respond by a certain date if he or she would still like the agency to process a particular request (i.e., “are you still interested in getting a response to this request?”) that has been pending in the agency’s backlog for a period of time. Our review of the use of these letters found that while a very small percentage of requests are closed each year using still interested letters, the available data does not capture the irritation that the practice causes for requesters – particularly if the agency provides the requester with only a few days to respond before the request is closed, despite the fact that the agency’s response to the FOIA request has been delayed for a year or longer. We also noted a lack of transparency regarding the use of these letters to close out FOIA requests.
In our report, we recommended that OGIS take two steps: first, we recommended that we continue to evaluate the use of still interested letters as part of our agency compliance assessment program. Since our report’s release, we noted issues with the use of still interested letters in our report on the United States Secret Service’s FOIA program, and recommended that the Secret Service take steps to bring the use of these letters in line with guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice that limits the use of these letters. The Secret Service FOIA staff concurred with our recommendation, and reports that it has since re-enforced the appropriate use of still interested letters and plans to provide additional training to staff on the proper use of these letters.
We also recommended that we bring potential abuse of these letters to the attention of appropriate agency officials as necessary. Shortly after the release of our report, we were alerted by requesters to their continued use by the State Department FOIA staff, and brought this issue to the attention of the State Department’s Chief FOIA Officer, Joyce Barr. In June, Ms. Barr responded to our letter to let us know about the steps the State Department is taking to bring its use of these letters into compliance with the Department of Justice’s guidance on their use.
We continue to be interested in how agencies are using still interested letters. We are asking for your help and feedback to better understand how agencies are currently using these letters. If you have received a still interested letter from an agency in the last year, please email us a copy of that letter to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with a brief explanation of the circumstances surrounding the letter (i.e., the nature of your original request, how long you waited until you received a still interested letter, and whether you were ever contacted by telephone or email directly by the agency) or tweet to us about it at @FOIA_Ombuds.