NARA names FOIA overseer

Director of new NARA office will oversee agency FOIA compliance, policy

Advocates for open government today welcomed the appointment of the first director of a new office at the National Archives and Records Administration that will provide policy guidance to agencies for handling of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and mediate disagreements about agency decisions not to grant requests.

NARA officials announced June 10 that Miriam Nisbet, a former NARA official and an advocate for open access to government records, will head the new Office of Government Information Services. The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2007 established the ombudsman-like office.

Advocates for open government praised Nisbet’s credentials, and some said they were happy the office was advancing in NARA after George W. Bush administration tried to move the office to the Justice Department. Critics said it didn’t make sense for a FOIA ombudsman to be part of Justice, which represents agencies when they’re sued over decisions to turn down FOIA requests.

"While the federal FOIA mediator's office is still a long way from mediating its first FOIA dispute, it took a strong step forward today with the naming of its new director, Miriam Nisbet," said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups. "She's a longtime advocate for open government, and this is a promising start for those who want the FOIA to work better."

OpenTheGovernment.org Director Patrice McDermott said Nisbet has a deep knowledge of the issues and has strong ties to the open-government community. She has been working as a senior official with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, supporting and promoting libraries, archives, and information and communication technologies.

However, McDermott, who worked directly with Nisbet for four years at the American Library Association, said Nisbet will face pressure from many different sides as she works to get the office operational and secure resources. McDermott also said there is still some concern that the office could be filled with Justice Department officials on detail to NARA.

“She’s going to have some real decisions about what cases to take on because she’s going to have very limited resources at first,” McDermott said. “The office is an important step, but it still needs to be strengthened.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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