Budget, interagency issues limit influence of OGIS

Stephen Miller | Freedom of Information | Feature | October 21, 2010

Limited funding and difficulty working with the sprawling federal FOIA bureaucracy constrained the Office of Government Information Services in its first year of operation, according to statements made at a Wednesday briefing.

The resources the office has been given don’t match the magnitude of the job the office has to do, said Archivist of the United States David Ferriero, head of the National Archives and Records Administration that houses OGIS. The briefing was held to update the public on the office’s progress since its inception in September 2009.

There are seven people on staff at OGIS, the purpose of which is to aid governmental agencies in complying with the Freedom of Information Act. Their responsibilities include reviewing agencies’ FOIA policies, mediating disputes between agencies and requesters, and bridging the communication gap between agencies and the public.

Miriam Nisbet, director of OGIS, said the office handled about 400 cases in its first year, compared to the approximate 600,000 FOIA requests made during the same period. More than 80 percent of the 400 cases have been closed.

A review of the office’s first year showed that its caseload has steadily increased since September 2009 and that a quarter of the cases it has received have arisen from denials of FOIA requests. Nearly half the cases have come from requests made to the Departments of Justice and Veterans’ Affairs, although Nisbet cautioned that this was due to those departments’ efforts to make use of the office, not necessarily due to problems with their FOIA request processing.

Although the budget has been “certainly challenging” according to Ferriero, the office is working towards expanding its influence and recognition among agencies and FOIA professionals.

“Creating regulations and revising regulations can be an arduous process,” Nisbet said, especially considering that OGIS has no enforcement ability.

The office is relying heavily on education of agencies and those making FOIA requests to help smooth the kinks in the process.

“There are people who still don’t know how to take advantage of a law that has been around for 40 years,” Nisbet said. She said OGIS encourages every agency to tell requesters about the office in their responses.

“It’s one thing to look at data reports by agencies . . . but we also think there’s a big value in going individually to the agencies,” she said. The office started offering dispute resolution training for FOIA professionals that teaches the skills needed to negotiate with requesters, she said. The course filled within a day of its offering.

Nisbet also mentioned that informing requesters on the best ways to make use of FOIA can help them get the best information. Requesters make overly broad requests for fear that if they don’t include everything they won’t get anything, she said. Sometimes, communicating directly with a FOIA officer to refine a search can work towards everyone’s benefit.

“A phone call can make all the difference,” she said.

As for the effectiveness of the newly-created chief FOIA officer and FOIA public liaison positions, Nisbet said it was too early to tell.

“We have to be conscious of the fact that it depends on how the agency is organized,” she said.

Nisbet said the office is keeping an eye on technology that is working with different agencies while sharing that information across the board. There is interest in making agency website use as user-friendly as possible in order to alleviate the need for requests for information that can be posted online.

Ferriero, who as Archivist also oversees the National Declassification Center occupied with declassifying some 400 million documents, said that it is too early to hazard a guess on what kind of budget OGIS will have to work with going into its second year.

He did say that “information and good government go hand in hand.”