US FOI Ombudsman Urged to Issue Advisory Opinions

9 June 2014

A federal advisory group in the United States on June 5 recommended that the freedom of information act ombudsman should issue advisory opinions.

Although this is permitted by law, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) has not issued any such opinions since being established in 2007. OGIS assists individuals with FOIA requests, including offering non-binding mediation, and reviews agencies’ FOIA performance.

The Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) said that OGIS advisory opinions, though nonbinding, could usefully call attention to FOIA issues and steer agencies toward improved performance.

On another topic, the ACUS committee that developed the FOIA recommendations stepped back from an earlier proposal urging ACUS not get involved in helping requesters until the appeals stage is reached.

The compromise final recommendation backed away from that position, saying instead:

“Requesters may appropriately seek assistance from OGIS at any stage of the FOIA process. However, because the opportunity for a FOIA appeal within the agency is an important component of the process, OGIS should continue to encourage requesters to complete that step prior to significant OGIS engagement.”

Another slight modification was made in a recommendation to government agencies, asking them to advise requesters about OGIS’s facilitation services in any determination letter in which a request is denied in whole or in part. In an earlier draft, the committee suggested this notice only for letters responding to appeals.

ACUS also recommended that agencies should do more to make FOIA work effectively. “All agencies, acting in a spirit of cooperation, should affirmatively seek to prevent or resolve FOIA disputes to the greatest extent possible,” according to the recommendation exhorts.

Agencies are urged to make better use of their FOIA public liaisons.

“All agencies should cooperate fully with OGIS efforts to mediate or otherwise facilitate the resolution of individual FOIA disputes,” ACUS also said.

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