In our previous blog post “Understanding the Office of Government Information Services,” we provided a basic overview of OGIS’s history and structure. In this post we’ll focus on our mediation program.
How are requests for OGIS assistance handled?
FOIA requesters and agencies may request OGIS’s assistance in resolving a dispute at any point in the FOIA administrative process. OGIS does not take sides in disputes or advocate on behalf of either the requester or agency; the office promotes a fair FOIA process and works with parties to reach a mutually agreeable resolution and/or increase understanding.
OGIS hears from requesters at any point in the FOIA process: prior to filing a FOIA request, once the FOIA has been filed, but no response has been received, prior to submitting an administrative appeal, or after the appeal has been adjudicated. Our assistance is tailored to the needs of the individual and meets them where they are in the FOIA process.
When requesters come to us seeking dispute resolution services, our Mediation Team uses its expertise to determine the best and most efficient way to address the issue. FOIA envisions OGIS and agencies sharing responsibility for dispute resolution. If we determine that the issue raised by the requester can best be resolved by communicating with a FOIA Public Liaison (FPL) or FOIA requester service center, and if the requester has not yet attempted to communicate with the agency, we will encourage them to do so before OGIS reaches out on their behalf. We have found that when a requester has a conversation with an agency’s FPL, it is, in many cases, most efficient because these FOIA professionals are familiar with the agency’s records, FOIA queues, and processes. In other cases, such as where communication has broken down and a dispute persists between a requester and an agency, OGIS works with the parties to learn more about their interests and increase understanding between the parties.
Mediation is, by definition, voluntary; this means that if either party declines to participate in mediation, or is otherwise firm in their position, OGIS cannot force participation or resolution. However, we will still endeavor to open the lines of communication between the disputing parties to clarify their positions.
What to expect when requesting OGIS assistance?
While OGIS provides dispute resolution services to both agencies and requesters, we hear primarily from FOIA requesters. When a FOIA requester contacts OGIS for assistance, the Mediation Team first collects and reviews correspondence related to the FOIA request, including the initial request and all subsequent communication between the requester and the agency. We assess whether the requester has exhausted all possible options with the agency and determine how we can best assist.
Through our communication with FOIA requesters and agency professionals, the Mediation Team identifies areas for possible improvement that are conveyed to OGIS’s Compliance Team for further research and action. In this way our programs speak to—and benefit from—each other.
Stay tuned for our next installment which will address OGIS’s compliance program.