A recent General Accountability Office (GAO) audit of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) gave mixed reviews to the agency’s success in meeting its statutory responsibilities. OGIS is charged with recommending policy changes to improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process, offering mediation services to help resolve disputes between requestors and agencies, and acting as ombudsman by responding to the needs of the diverse FOIA community. While recognizing the constraints of OGIS’s limited budget, the GAO report concludes that OGIS’s actions are not as robust as they should be to effectively comply with the law and points to the failure of OGIS to create a plan for conducting comprehensive reviews of federal agencies’ FOIA policies or compliance.
Since its establishment in 2009, OGIS has provided comments on proposed FOIA regulations for 18 of 99 federal agencies that administer FOIA, as well as a number of Privacy Act system of records notices, according to the GAO report. While OGIS has suggested improvements to a number of those regulations and notices, GAO finds it has “not performed the reviews of regulations and notices in a proactive, comprehensive manner, and has not conducted any reviews of agencies’ compliance with the law.” OGIS is in the early stages of developing a methodology for conducting such reviews and GAO recommends that they agency set a time frame for completing this work and under which to begin carrying out proactive evaluations of agency compliance. The report also calls for the creation of performance measures for its mediation services.
In a blog post last week, director of OGIS Miriam Nisbet responded to some the criticism leveled in the GAO report. Ms. Nisbet points to the “lessons learned” in the last four years of OGIS’s work, highlighting that above all “It is challenging to define ‘success’ in providing mediation services.” Given OGIS’s broad mandate and the great demand for OGIS’s services, the constraints of a small staff, limited budget, and large caseload present challenges. Further, it is not obvious that Congress necessarily intended for OGIS to conduct comprehensive reviews, as GAO assumes, or that such an approach is necessary for OGIS to exercise effective oversight.
OGIS is working on an action plan to respond to the challenges identified in the GAO report and will share it with the public in the coming weeks. AALL has been supportive of OGIS and its important work in mediating FOIA disputes and offering training to agencies, and we commend the agency’s leadership in developing a uniform, centralized location to make and manage information requests. We hope to see continued Congressional support for OGIS. By promoting the availability and importance of OGIS’s mediation work, the government can avoid the animosity and costs associated with litigation and better facilitate the legal right of access to government information under FOIA.