As we at the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) celebrate our 13th birthday, Ombuds Day, and Mediation Week, we want to provide a refresher and overview of our services and explain a bit more about what we do as a part of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process. Below is some historical information about OGIS along with answers to common questions about how we do our work.
How did OGIS get its start?
Congress created OGIS in the OPEN Government Act of 2007. This Act established OGIS within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as the federal FOIA Ombudsman. The Act also required that agencies make available to requesters their FOIA Public Liaison (FPL) to assist in resolving disputes between agencies and requesters; and that every federal agency designate a Chief FOIA Officer.
OGIS was created to:
- review policies and procedures of administrative agencies;
- review compliance by administrative agencies;
- recommend policy changes to Congress and the President of the United States to improve the administration of FOIA; and
- offer mediation services to resolve disputes between persons making requests and administrative agencies as a non-exclusive alternative to litigation.
In 2016, Congress amended FOIA to require agencies to notify requesters of the right to request dispute resolution services from OGIS or an agency FOIA Public Liaison at various points in the FOIA process, and to require OGIS to hold an annual public meeting and co-chair a Chief FOIA Officers Council.
The FOIA Ombudsman
As the FOIA Ombudsman, OGIS plays an important and unique role in the FOIA process. We use our statutory mandates, along with the ombuds standards of independence, confidentiality, and impartiality to identify procedures and methods to improve overall compliance with the FOIA. OGIS’s independence from individual FOIA offices allows us to offer recommendations, testimony, comments, and reports about agency FOIA programs as well as the FOIA statute directly to Congress and the President, without approval from any other agency. OGIS serves as a resource for information and assistance about the FOIA process. We provide dispute resolution services in accordance with the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996, including its confidentiality provision, allowing for candid and fruitful discussions of issues and concerns. Finally, OGIS is impartial as we serve as a neutral third party working for a fair and equitable administration of the FOIA process.
Neutrality is a key component of all of OGIS’s work. While our work reviewing FOIA policies, procedures and compliance as well as our dispute resolution efforts may at times appear as if we are advocating for a particular group of requesters or agencies, we are advocating for a FOIA process that works for all. In both our compliance and dispute resolution programs, we serve as an impartial collaborator with both agencies and the requester community.
How is OGIS structured?
OGIS has two teams that work in two areas—compliance and mediation. The Compliance Team focuses on reviewing agency policies, procedures, and communications to ensure consistency and clear messaging by federal agencies. The Compliance Team also writes agency assessments and compliance reports. The Mediation Team works directly with FOIA requesters and agencies to resolve disputes and provide assistance through a variety of alternative dispute resolution approaches.
Both teams work together to meet OGIS’s mission. By resolving disputes as a nonexclusive alternative to litigation, our Mediation Team listens to stakeholders and observes the FOIA process in action. By allowing our casework and assessments to serve as a FOIA barometer and studying a range of FOIA issues, our Compliance Team fulfills Congress’s mandate to review FOIA policies, procedures and compliance, and identify procedures and methods for improving compliance with FOIA. By speaking about systemic change in a variety of ways, we fulfill Congress’s mandate to identify procedures and methods for improving compliance with FOIA. Running through all of our work is holding space for important and sometimes difficult conversations to occur—an important ombuds function.
In addition, OGIS has support staff who manage day-to-day administrative work; an attorney-advisor who provides advice and review; a deputy director who oversees operations for the office; and a director who, among other duties, chairs the FOIA Advisory Committee and co-chairs the Chief FOIA Officers Council.
Stay tuned for more blog posts on understanding OGIS and our work.