White House inaction stalls FOIA recommendations

Recommendations for improving how agencies handle governmentwide Freedom of Information Act requests have been awaiting approval at the Office of Management and Budget for more than nine months, the director of the office that wrote the recommendations told Nextgov.

The Office of Government Information Services is tasked with mediating disputes between FOIA requesters and the agencies processing those requests and with recommending policy changes to Congress and the president for how FOIA processing can operate more efficiently and transparently.

Congress created the office in 2007, when it passed the Open Government Act, which updated the four-decade-old old Freedom of Information Act.

The office, which opened its doors in September 2009, 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.

More than two years into its existence, however, the office hasn't been able to make any recommendations.

OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet said she doesn't know the cause of the delay. She declined to speculate except to say that OMB has been very busy since February, when OGIS submitted the recommendations, and processing them may have lost out to higher priority issues, such as overseeing the government's numerous budget crises.

"I'm really hoping they'll come out soon," she said.

Nisbet also declined to say what's included in the recommendations, except to note that they don't go too far afield from issues the office has highlighted in reports and testimony before Congress.

In those, Nisbet and OGIS have advocated mostly for more FOIA training inside agencies, especially at higher levels, and for better communication between agencies and requesters.

President Obama has pushed several government transparency initiatives since taking office. Many of those are aimed at proactive disclosure of government information through tailored websites such as the government data set trove Data.gov and the Federal IT Dashboard, which tracks performance and spending on major government information technology projects.

His administration also has committed to improving FOIA processing by creating a professional track for administrators and employing new technology to speed notoriously slow processing times.

The average processing time for a simple FOIA request is nearly four months, with some complex requests taking a year or longer and turning up only a fraction of the requested information.

A March survey by the Knight Foundation found that only 13 of 90 agencies had made concrete changes to their FOIA procedures and the number of requests the government responded to had actually dropped despite an increase in FOIAs being filed.

On the ombudsman side, OGIS' seven-person office has processed more than 750 cases in its first two years and fielded about 500 more inquires on minor issues, Nisbet said.

One of the major themes of disputes coming to OGIS is the time lag in getting responses out, which often stretches long beyond the statutory response period of 20 days, Nisbet said. That statutory period is far too short for most agencies to do a thorough search, she said, but agencies often don't give requesters a good explanation for what's causing the delay or when their responses might come through.

"We spend a fair amount of our time working with requesters and agencies on where their request [is] in the process and what needs to be done," she said.

Another large share of OGIS disputes have to do with setting FOIA processing fees, which vary from agency to agency, and helping requesters refine broadly phrased requests for a faster response, Nisbet said.