Dispute Resolution: It’s a Team Sport

We are happy to have teammates that pitch in to help us resolve FOIA disputes. (NARA Identifier 26467081)

As we have discussed before, OGIS is not the only entity that requesters can go to for help with the FOIA process. In fact, agencies were directed to create FOIA Requester Service Centers and appoint FOIA Public Liaisons in December 2005 – about two years before passage of the bill that created our office.

Since we opened our doors to assist FOIA requesters in September 2009, we have worked closely with FOIA Public Liaisons to ensure our customers have the information they need to help resolve FOIA disputes. For example, we have turned to FOIA Public Liaisons to provide us with estimated dates of completion, information about their agencies’ record-keeping systems, and much more.

Now, thanks to a question that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Information Policy (OIP) included in the latest version of agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports, we have an even better understanding about how agency FOIA Public Liaisons assist the public with the process. For the 2017 report, DOJ asked all agencies that process a large (more than 1,000 requests) and medium (50-1,000 requests) volume of FOIA requests to provide an estimate of how often requesters sought assistance from that agency’s FOIA Public Liaison. Since the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 added a new requirement that OGIS report to Congress the number of times each agency engaged in dispute resolution with the assistance of the FOIA Public Liaison (see 5 U.S.C. § 552 (h)(4)(A)(ii)(II)), DOJ sent us a preview of the results earlier this year.

According to the data, agencies estimated that requesters sought assistance from agency FOIA Public Liaisons approximately 67,192 times in 2016. Given the number of agencies that process either large and/or medium volume of requests, this works out to an average of 1,018 times requesters contacted a FOIA Public Liaison per agency during the past year

We noted a large range in the numbers reported by each agency, with agencies that process fewer requests each year generally – and not surprisingly – reporting fewer contacts with that agency’s FOIA Public Liaison. We also noted that about 40% of the agencies that responded to the question reported that the FOIA Public Liaison, on average, is contacted less than one time per month.

We look forward to continuing to work with DOJ to better understand the impact of agency FOIA Public Liaisons on the process. We also look forward to learning from Federal agencies if the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 has had a similar effect on their FOIA Public Liaisons as it has had on OGIS’s workload.

We are always looking to hear from you about how to make the FOIA process work better for both agencies and requesters. If you have any suggestions for how we can improve our coordination with FOIA Public Liaisons, please let us know in the comments!