FOIA dispute mediator opens doors

Office of Government Information Services eyes electronic case tracking system

A new government office designed to help resolve disputes that involve the roughly 600,000 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that agencies get each year is considering how to use information technology to help it serve as a governmentwide “FOIA Ombudsman.”

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), officially opened in September to mediate disagreements between FOIA requesters and federal agencies, and monitor agency compliance with the FOIA. The agency has opened about 40 cases and is looking at ways it can expand its role as a non-exclusive, non-binding alternative to litigation that arises from agency responses to FOIA requests.

“What we’re looking for is to try to keep cases out of the courts that really don’t need to be there,” Miriam Nisbet, OGIS director , told reporters today. She said although there will still be litigation in some cases, her office will be working to exhaust administrative remedies to resolve disputes.

Meanwhile, Nisbet said NARA is starting a procurement process to get an electronic case tracking system for OGIS that ideally would let people go online and see what kind of cases the office is working on, and how they’re being resolved. She said there’s hope that system could be a model for other agencies.

“Agencies are really interested in that because that is sort of the next step in how FOIA offices should be making people aware of what’s going on with their request,” she said. “It’s like being able to track your package on UPS.”

In addition, OGIS has started working with a contractor to explore the feasibility of using online dispute resolution for disagreements coming from FOIA requests, Nisbet said.

Nisbet said although OGIS doesn’t have the authority to compel agency action, the office does have strong support from the White House and Congress to improve the FOIA process. Nisbet said OGIS is placing a priority on getting involved in disputes that involve requests for unclassified records, and her office is working with those in charge of alternative dispute resolution programs at agencies to set up mediation training programs for FOIA officers.

In addition to providing mediation services, OGIS is responsible for recommending FOIA policy changes to the president and Congress. The office’s budget for fiscal 2010 is about $1.4 million and will soon be fully staffed at six people. Nisbet said her office is determining its eventual resource and staffing needs.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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