The Office of Government Information Services today issued its first advisory opinion on a FOIA matter. Today’s advisory opinion, and the many we hope will follow, is important for OGIS to help prevent and resolve disputes and make FOIA work better.
The purpose of advisory opinions is to provide clear direction to agencies and requesters on how FOIA’s requirements should be interpreted to prevent future disputes, similar to the way the Office of Government Ethics makes public its advice to agencies and government employees who request OGE’s help interpreting ethics laws.
Back when we were advocating for the creation of OGIS before 2007, News Media for Open Government (back then called the Sunshine in Government Initiative) saw advisory opinions as a key tool for the FOIA Ombudsman to call balls and strikes, and to create a record for courts, agencies and requesters to guide the way FOIA should work.
The advisory opinion issued today gave advice to agencies on ensuring requesters have good ways to contact the agency to follow up on a request. This is not a controversial topic. By issuing an advisory opinion, however, OGIS is signaling to agencies that agencies should pay attention. Future opinions should provide clear interpretations of FOIA on disputes, controversies, or practices that run counter to FOIA’s requirements.
Eleven years later, after many bureaucratic obstacles were thrown in its path, OGIS is taking an important step towards fulfilling our vision for how OGIS can help FOIA work as strongly and effectively as it can.