Advocates, officials discuss sunshine measures

Here’s a brief summary of testimony by witnesses at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning on the Freedom of Information Act.  Our appreciation to Chairman Patrick Leahy for holding the hearing (and adjusting the schedule to avoid conflicting with “FOI Day” at the Freedom Forum).

Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), reported that her office has made strides in handling both statutory duties and popular expectations. While OGIS has not performed a formal mediation yet, it has closed over 540 cases since its creation, many under an informal facilitation process. Nisbet also stressed the importance of ensuring there are channels of communication between requesters and agencies.

Sarah Cohen, an award-winning-journalist-turned-professor-of-journalism, echoed Nisbet’s insistence that agencies need to be responsive, and even proactive, to FOIA requesters. Although Melanie Pustay, director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), reported that agency reports for the last two years show reductions in delays and backlogs, the number of outstanding requests and the variety of records available continue to fuel uncertainty and pessimism among requesters. Cohen also noted that despite the requirements of section (a)(2)(D) of FOIA (5 USC 552), which requires agencies to release “copies of all records, regardless of form or format, which have been released to any person under paragraph (3) and which, because of the nature of their subject matter, the agency determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records”, she has seldom, if ever, seen any of her requests lead to such a posting.

Pustay also noted that yesterday OIP rolled out its new dashboard,  Pustay said that agencies filed their annual FOIA reports more quickly this year than in recent memory.

Other witnesses included John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, and Thomas Fitton, representing Judicial Watch.

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