The government’s agency for monitoring federal compliance with public records law needs to be more aggressive, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded last week.
The four-year-old Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) should be more forceful in vetting agencies’ compliance with current public records law, as well as proposed changes to regulations, the GAO said in a report.
“While OGIS has suggested improvements to a number of those regulations and notices, it has not performed the reviews of regulations and notices in a proactive, comprehensive manner, and has not conducted any reviews of agencies’ compliance with the law,” the GAO said. “In addition, since it was established 4 years ago, the office has not developed a methodology for conducting reviews of agencies’ FOIA policies and procedures, or for compliance with [Freedom of Information Act] requirements.”
Congress established OGIS in 2009 to recommend and comment on agency’s public records policies, as well as collect best practices. Additionally, OGIS acts as a mediator between federal agencies and the public, which helps reduce the number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits.
OGIS has commented on proposed FOIA regulations at 18 of 99 agencies that administer FOIA so far, GAO said. According to the OGIS 2012 report, it closed 354 cases in response to requests for assistance.
While GAO praised OGIS for successfully resolving about two-thirds of those disputes in ways that saved taxpayers money and avoided litigation, it said the office should have clearer metrics for its mediation efforts.
However, independent transparency watchdogs have lauded OGIS as a positive step for open government.
Daniel Metcalfe, the executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University’s Washington College of Law, said OGIS needs more resources. The office employs only a handful of staff tasked with refereeing FOIA disputes across a federal government that is not even sure how many agencies it has.
“It’s truly a shame that Congress and NARA [National Records and Archives Administration] has underfunded OGIS to the point at which so critical a report is possible—especially regarding government-wide oversight of FOIA policies that ought to be taken care of, as in the past, by the Department of Justice,” Metcalfe said. “Sadly, it is [the Justice Department’s] recent failure in the first place that places OGIS in this position.”
As reported previously by the Free Beacon, the Justice Department has done little to enforce its own directives regarding public records law. The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy said earlier this year that it had not challenged a single agency for misusing a FOIA exemption since 2009.
The Obama Administration, which began with lofty promises to be the “most transparent administration in history,” has dragged its feet on many openness initiatives.
When OGIS submitted recommendations for improving how agencies handle government-wide FOIA requests in February 2011, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget waited nine months before approving them.