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Changes underway in the federal FOIA system

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  1. Freedom of Information
With Congress's approval Tuesday of the omnibus spending bill, the Office of Government Services, which will house the new ombudsman for the Freedom…

With Congress’s approval Tuesday of the omnibus spending bill, the Office of Government Services, which will house the new ombudsman for the Freedom of Information Act, received $1 million in start-up funds.

OGIS, which will be housed in the National Archives and Records Administration, was created by the 2007 amendments to FOIA. It has not yet opened for business. The Bush administration made a major push to move OGIS to to the Justice Department — which defends the very disputes that FOIA requesters would bring to this new office — but Congress ultimately restored the office’s funding to the National Archives budget.

After the Obama administration took office in January, Archives officials announced they were looking for a director to head the new office. The director will be responsible for setting up the rest of the office, which is intended to help resolve disputes between requesters and agencies without court action.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative, which includes the Reporters Committee, had pushed for the creation of the new office and for its funding.

“This is an important step towards having a fully functioning FOIA ombudsman,” said Rick Blum, the SGI coordinator. “OGIS should help end stalemates and lengthy delays when faced with controversies over disclosure decisions. This investment will help agencies strengthen their responses to FOIA requests.”

How exactly OGIS will fit into the current FOIA structure is unclear, though. To an extent, its role will depend on its interaction with the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy, which has long offered FOIA training and provided general guidance on the act for agencies. It is also instrumental in the compilation of FOIA annual reports and in publishing the Justice Department’s comprehensive FOIA handbook.

On Wednesday, that office changed its name to the Office of Information Policy. In its announcement, the office said the switch “reflects the current mission and function of the Office which is responsible for providing government-wide policy guidance on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act.”