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Monday, October 11, 2010
FOI Toolbox

Get help from FOIA ombudsman

By David Cuillier

Foiled by federal FOIA? Get help from the Office of Government Information Services.

This federal ombudsman office, housed in the National Archives and Records Administration just outside Washington, D.C., in College Park, Md., is a year old as of September. Seven staff attorneys mediate disputes when requesters feel agencies are not following the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

As the office celebrates its one-year birthday, let’s look at its accomplishments and challenges so far, and what you can get out of this service at no cost:

One a day: Within the first year, the agency has handled more than 340 cases, ranging from informational (providing people tips on submitting letters) to the tricky (explaining to an agency how the law works and getting officials to reconsider their denials). You can see summaries at the OGIS website, archives.gov/ogis. From what I can tell, the office appears to be doing a good job resolving disputes, helping requesters overcome denials, and lowering copy and search fees.

The few, the proud: “It’s been very exciting and very busy,” said Miriam Nisbet, OGIS director. I bet. Seven staffers aren’t enough to handle the federal government and the 310 million people who might want to access it. Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission, in comparison, has more than 20 employees to serve a state population of 3.5 million. Let your members of Congress know they need to increase funding for OGIS and for FOIA processing.

Frequent fliers: When you look at the case log, you’ll see a few agencies appear a lot, such as the Department of Justice and Department of Veterans Affairs. Nisbet said this is because those agencies have been the first to promote OGIS. “I think it’s too soon to say we have a bad agency,” Nisbet said. “But when the time comes we’ll talk about the bad practices as well as good practices.”

Annual report: That time might come soon. Nisbet said she should have her first report to Congress finished by early December. In that report, she plans to describe what they have learned the first year, best practices for agencies, and recommendations for Congress and the administration to improve the FOIA process. Stay tuned; this could be helpful in improving access.

Training: OGIS has started training agencies in alternative dispute resolution so officials can work with requesters to avoid needless lawsuits. This is something you might consider when dealing with difficult agencies to avoid litigation and hassles. What we also need, and Nisbet agrees, is training for requesters, from seasoned journalists to high school students.

Advice: Based on what Nisbet has observed this past year, she offers these tips for requesters: Be as specific as possible, talk with the FOIA officer to narrow your request, check the agency website to see whether the documents are already posted, follow up frequently, and consult the guide to using FOIA provided online by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (rcfp.org/fogg).

Try it out:If you have a problem getting records from a federal agency, contact OGIS at 877-684-6448 or at ogis@nara.gov. For more information, click here.

David Cuillier is the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, is a former newspaper reporter and editor, teaches journalism at the University of Arizona, and is co-author of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.” Reach him at cuillier@email.arizona.edu.

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