Thoughts from the Newseum “OGIS at Five” Symposium
dcogcadmin | November 9, 2014
Has the federal “FOIA Help Desk” (otherwise known as the Office of Government Information Services or OGIS) improved that process in its five years of life?
The big take-away from the Newseum event October 31, 2014, featuring speakers from OGIS, one federal agency, Congress and the press, seemed to be modest expectations for change from any intermediary with limited resources and authority. Founded in 2009, OGIS is charged with reviewing FOIA policies, procedures and compliance of Federal agencies and recommending changes to FOIA based on what they see. The OGIS mission also includes resolving FOIA disputes between Federal agencies and requesters. Even before the symposium GAO had reported last year that OGIS hadn’t buckled on its armor and directly evaluated agency FOIA policies and compliance with the statute.
Two thoughts for the District of Columbia, looking ahead to 2015 when a new Mayor and Council members will take office, bringing possibilities for improvements in the District’s Freedom of Information Act and the Open Government Office that has a role in overseeing agency efforts to administer the D.C. Act:
–“Dispute resolution assistance” by itself may not be enough — an agency FOIA staffer in the symposium thought OGIS efforts such as training agency staff, direct mediation (with posted results) and offering suggestions of best practices were leading towards a “culture shift” in federal FOIA staff approach to their work. But requesters didn’t think the needle had moved much and yearned for OGIS to have more real clout (OGIS presently has no power to compel disclosure).
–Legislative action appears to be essential to assure a truly independent office that can speak forcefully for open government and avoid encroachment by others in the bureaucracy; for example, the FOIA Improvements Act of 2014 (S. 2520), pending in the United States Senate, addresses not only FOIA improvements but also apparently some problems of the existing OGIS authorizing statute. The bill directs the Office in future to make independent legislative recommendations for FOIA improvement without having to navigate an executive branch labyrinth of review and approval, and provides general authority for OGIS to issue advisory opinions at its own discretion.
The coming year will be a time for discussion in the District about similar issues regarding the D.C. FOIA, the role of the D.C. Open Government Office in assuring it works for public access to records, and legislative action that may be needed. The D.C. Open Government Coalition will shortly issue recommendations for the new administration.