A win for OGIS!

Today The Associated Press story showing that political officials reviewed FOIA requests proves that the Office of Government Information Services can effectively resolve disputes and avoid potential litigation (not that we necessarily doubted OGIS).

(For full disclosure, the AP is a member of the Sunshine in Government Initiative.)

AP’s Ted Bridis reports that political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security ordered career staff to give them a heads up when a FOIA request came in for sensitive information.  AP describes it this way:

[DHS] detoured hundreds of requests for federal records to senior political advisers for highly unusual scrutiny, probing for information about the requesters and delaying disclosures deemed too politically sensitive

As of June 1, OGIS reported closing 182 cases since opening their doors in September 2009.  The vast majority appear to be breakdowns in customer service: requests fall through the cracks, a requester needs more information about FOIA or where to submit a request, etc.

This is routine stuff that for the most part the agencies themselves should be taking care of.  It’s frustrating for the requester, and OGIS does a service by helping requesters with these issues, but these are things agencies should be fixing.

But this particular request by the AP appears to be a case where the agency did not want to disclose.  An independent eye (OGIS) on the dispute was necessary to resolve the issue and possibly prevented costly litigation.

This is exactly what the OGIS was created to do.


MMS cuts red tape in document requests

The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been overwhelmed with requests for information about the Gulf oil spill and is responding by eliminating fees, expediting requests, and posting responses on its website, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) noted on June 22.

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DHS accounts for nearly all backlog reductions in 2009. That’s right, DHS

FOIA followers have read that the aggregate government-wide FOIA backlog is down from about 157,000 to about 102,000 requests, a reduction of about 35 percent. (We’ll use round numbers for ease of reading.) This statistic shows broad improvements.

This must be a general trend of agencies getting the message and doing a better job, right? Wrong.

The Department of Homeland Security accounts for all of the backlog reductions.

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Can an agency get credit if it reduces backlogs?

This may sound like asking whether a tree falling in a forest with no one around makes any noise at all, but bear with me here:  If an agency improves their backlog of FOIA requests — actually makes a dent in it — would anyone know?

Maybe not.

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