FOIA recommendations still awaiting approval

You-Jin Han | Freedom of Information | Feature | December 2, 2011

More than a week after media reports revealed that proposed Office of Government and Information Services recommendations to improve federal Freedom of Information Act implementation have been awaiting the Office of Management and Budget’s approval for nine months, OMB has taken no further public action, although discussions about the recommendations are allegedly ongoing.

“There were talks going on [Tuesday] and things are in development,” said OMB spokeswoman Meg Reilly.

Last week, Nextgov, a web site that provides coverage on the federal government’s management of information technology, reported on the status of the recommendations.

“[OGIS] . . . was intended to operate like a FOIA ombudsman that could mediate disputes and make recommendations from its perch inside the National Archives and Records Administration – relatively removed from the hurly-burly of government operations,” the article said. “More than two years into its existence, however, the office hasn’t been able to make any recommendations.”

In February, the Office of Government Information Services – tasked with helping improve agencies’ handling of Freedom of Information Act requests by, in part, making recommendations to the executive branch and Congress – submitted its first such recommendations to OMB for approval.

OGIS director Miriam Nisbet said she is not aware that OMB has taken any responsive action following the news story, and hopes to “see some movement” on the recommendations soon.

“I think the priorities at OMB are much more driven by lots of other things, rather than stories like that,” said Nisbet. “They have a lot going on over there, including lots of budgetary matters, so I think that’s certainly the big story for the government – our current budgetary situation – not necessarily our recommendations.”

Nisbet declined to discuss the substance of the recommendations.

She points to other sources of OGIS guidance – such as its manual on agency best practices in handling FOIA requests and its blog posts – as “recommendations,” even though, as she says, “they might not be recommendations with a capital ‘R.’”

Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media advocates for improving open government, said OGIS – by virtue of its position as both an office within the government and as a representative of FOIA requesters – is uniquely situated to understand the causes of FOIA problems such as delays and backlogs, and therefore must be able to recommend changes.

And since OGIS costs taxpayers a little more than $1 million, said Blum, while federal agencies expend $400 million on FOIA operations, OGIS can recommend the “biggest bang-for-your-buck improvements” to Congress and the President.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a member organization of the Sunshine in Government Initiative.