Open Gov

OGIS' Miriam Nisbet heads for the exits

Archives.gov image: Miriam Nisbet of OGIS.

A plum job is opening up soon at the National Archives. The director of the Office of Government Information Services is charged with implementing dispute resolution in the Freedom of Information Act process and reviewing agency policy procedures and compliance with the open government law. The job ranges across the federal government, and comes with a small staff and a corner office on North Capitol Street that would have a commanding view of the Capitol Dome, were it not for the imposing and inconveniently situated headquarters of the Government Printing Office across the street. 

Miriam Nisbet has led OGIS for all five years of its existence. She's retiring from federal service at the end of November, after working as an information policy attorney for the National Archive, with stints at the American Library Association and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Standing up the OGIS, which was mandated in a 2007 FOIA update, was a signal achievement.

"I think that we with the help of a really excellent and dedicated and small staff have taken up a very few words of direction from the statute and built a program that does respond directly to the statutory mandate to provide mediation services," Nisbet told FCW in an interview. "We have also been able to start a program of providing dispute resolution skills to agency FOIA professionals, and that after five years the idea of dispute resolution as part of the FOIA process is no longer a strange or unknown approach," she said.

Nisbet said that the on the policy side, OGIS hasn't engaged "as fully as we would have liked." But the team is expected to be fully stocked by the beginning of 2015, with 10 staff members including a new director, and will be able to dedicate a team to expanding reviews of agency policy. Overall, Nisbet said, that she thinks that a deeper understanding and acceptance of FOIA is seeping into the federal government. "In the five years that this office has been around we have been able to see that there really is across government a bit more recognition of the importance of FOIA among executives and people at the top. That is really a culture change," she said.

Culture change is a big part of what Nisbet has tried to inculcate at OGIS. The point isn't necessarily about "directly affecting the release of more records," but about "looking for ways to improve the process, to improve communications between FOIA requestors and the FOIA personnel in the agencies, to make the process less adversarial and more open and collaborative," she said.

Baking-in openness

Nisbet gets good marks from stakeholders.

"Overall we're big fans of OGIS," said Matthew Rumsey, policy associate at the Sunlight Foundation, an open government group. "The folks there are committed to making FOIA work better. We think sometimes they get hamstrung by the circumstances they operate under. They've struggled to get recommendations out to the White House and to Congress. But overall we're happy they exist. The folks there have done a lot with what they've been given."

As chair of the FOIA Advisory Committee, Nisbet facilitates interactions between the requestor community and agency FOIA officers to discuss policy and recommend process improvements.

So far the committee has met twice, with a third meeting set for January. Members are looking at FOIA fees, proactive disclosure of information by agencies, and oversight and accountability. Even if the group doesn't make headway on policy, the personal interaction between requestors and FOIA officials is useful on its own account, building bridges between individuals that previously interacted only through forms and memoranda.

The automation of the FOIA requesting process is also having an impact.

FOIA Online, which launched two years ago, is supporting 12 partner agencies and about 100,000 individual accounts have been created.

While Nisbet's office isn't directly concerned with FOIA systems, she said that from her perch she sees that agencies are increasingly finding that tools they are using for electronic discovery for legal purposes also have relevance to the FOIA process. But she notes that openness has to be baked into systems on the information creation end.

"Let's try and make sure that we're building systems that are compatible with disclosure, and not just for internal purposes. That would include building in requirements for procurement with the idea of processing for FOIA request or electronic discovery," Nisbet said.

Still, she acknowledges that there is some pain that goes along with the process on both sides. "There are 700,000 requests to government every year across all departments and agencies. It's a hard job," she said.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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