For OGIS, road to recommendations reveals not enough independence

When the Office of Management and Budget cleared the FOIA Ombudsman to issue its recommendations for improving FOIA operations, it was a win in the battle for open government.  However, the difficult process, in which we and others made a stink and Congress had to become involved, has made clear that the Office of Government Information Services does not yet have the independence that Congress considered so crucial for it to succeed.

While its recommendations to Congress and the President were pending, OGIS made public some “suggestions” for agencies to improve their FOIA programs and scattered them around its website, blog and training programs.  However, these ideas are not the same as broader recommendations for across-the-board improvements to FOIA that Congress or the White House could put in motion.

Let’s face it: Congress and the White House are fairly busy places, and FOIA reforms are not at the top of their agenda (as much as we would like it to be).  So OGIS was to provide in-the-trenches ideas where senior leadership in both branches could act and have a significant impact.

We can debate the specifics that OGIS put forward and disagree, but that is the point: OGIS’s recommendations are supposed to spark conversation and discussion and lead to actions that will improve FOIA.  Because the OGIS recommendations are not a completed legislative package, interagency input and OMB review is inappropriate; these recommendations are OGIS’s, not those of a number of agencies, based on its expertise and experience handling FOIA disputes.

Back in 2008, SGI laid out a vision for how OGIS should approach its work in its early years. We emphasized an independent OGIS should have a robust mediation program, rely on advisory opinions and make recommendations to contribute to a better FOIA for requesters and agencies. OGIS has an ambitious mandate, and while we may want to update certain ideas we had back then, we think this vision for an independent OGIS is just as relevant today as it was four years ago.

You can read OGIS’s recommendations for improving FOIA here, as well as see the collection of FOIA improvements that OGIS has collected in one place on its website.

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About sunshineingov
Coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative

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