From the AOUTUS: OGIS: The FOIA Ombudsman

4/18/2019 2:30 pm

This September will mark the 10th anniversary of a part of the National Archives and Records Administration that performs a valuable service for Federal agencies and the public. The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) opened its doors in September 2009 and has since been known as the FOIA Ombudsman.

FOIA—the Freedom of Information Act—was passed in 1966 to give the public the right to access the records of Federal agencies. The importance of access to information was noted in the earliest days of our government. James Madison explained: “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

The volume of records produced by a FOIA request can range from a single document to tens of thousands of pages. Over the years since passage of the Act, agencies and requesters frequently fell into adversarial roles. In order to better resolve disputes, Congress created OGIS with the passage of the OPEN Government Act of 2007. 

And for the last 10 years, OGIS has pursued its twofold mission: to help resolve disputes between requesters and agencies through mediation rather than litigation and to review agencies’ FOIA policies, procedures, and compliance and identify how to improve them. Today, OGIS is fully woven into the FOIA process as it provides dispute resolution services and improves compliance with the statute all while advocating for a fair process that works for all stakeholders. 

OGIS’s home within the National Archives and Records Administration is a fitting alignment. OGIS’s work strongly supports two of NARA’s four strategic goals: Connect with Customers and Make Access Happen. And its placement within NARA supports OGIS’s role as an independent, neutral party.

In 2014, NARA chartered the FOIA Advisory Committee, a deliberative body that fosters dialogue between the Federal government and the requester community, solicits public comments, and develops recommendations for improving FOIA administration. Committee members, whom I appoint, represent a wide variety of stakeholders with experience in the administration of FOIA—both inside and outside of government. Since 2016, the Committee has made eight recommendations and proposed 43 best practices for improving the FOIA process.

The volume of FOIA activity has grown considerably—in fiscal year 2018, the Federal government received more than 863,000 requests, and OGIS handled nearly 5,000 requests for assistance from FOIA requesters and agencies.

But OGIS’s goal is to not only resolve disputes but to improve processes and communication so that disputes do not arise. Although FOIA processors in agencies cannot control the number of requests being filed or the number staff processing requests, they can have a dialogue with requesters to help set expectations and improve requests.

Its function as a facilitator in dispute resolution allows OGIS to observe interactions between requesters and agencies and note common questions and issues that arise in the FOIA process. Last year OGIS created a new educational vehicle, the FOIA Ombuds Observer, to address common concerns. The first issue of the FOIA Ombuds Observer, designed to serve as a companion to the Immigration Forum OGIS sponsored in the William G. McGowan Theater in August 2018, brings together in one document a roadmap for requesters to access a variety of immigration records at multiple Federal agencies. Advisory Opinions are another new tool to address the common disputes, complaints, and trends that are likely to lead to litigation.

Going forward, OGIS will continue to explore new avenues for improving the FOIA process. Every day, OGIS connects with a diverse group of customers—both requesters and agency FOIA professionals—to assist them through the FOIA process—whether through informal and formal education about the process, or guiding and coaching to resolve and even prevent disputes.

 

###