FOIA: The Ombudsman Needs to Grow

When Congress improved FOIA last year, it built in some growing pains for the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS). Today, we’re seeing those pains in longer than usual waits for replies from OGIS. The office has reportedly been inundated with requests for assistance as FOIA requesters navigate FOIA. In response, they’ve had to triage the Office’s response to help requests. OGIS was never intended to add another level of waiting to the FOIA process, but FOIA reformers in Congress knew growing pains were inevitable.

To fulfill its mission, OGIS will have to become bigger than its current size to provide assistance to requesters over the 100-agency bureaucracy subject FOIA and smarter in focusing on systemic problems with FOIA implementation through the use of advisory opinions and other ways of addressing long-standing shortcomings in agency FOIA efforts. We’ve long reminded anyone who’ll listen that OGIS’s original budget of around $1 million was a mere down payment by Congress on creating an effective mediator and advisor to make FOIA work better. (In fact, Congressional Budget Office scored OGIS as needing around $6 million annually.)

To be a more assertive, independent, and effective force for improving the system, OGIS needs active support from within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Congress and outside groups to make that vision a reality.

How can journalists help? If you’ve used OGIS and find it useful, share your experience! If you requested help but hoped for more, let your readers know! Tweets using #FOIA to vent frustrations or applause. Anecdotal evidence of success and shortcomings helps NMOG member groups make the case to make FOIA better for journalists and the public. (And remember, journalists account for a small fraction of FOIA requests, so this is a problem that affects your audience.)