May update on FOIA ombudsman cases

More people are finding the Office of Government Information Services for help resolving problems with their FOIA requests, according to the latest monthly update from OGIS (pdf).

April brought 52 new cases to OGIS, a drop from 60 new cases in March.  March’s windfall likely came from the office’s visibility during Sunshine Week.  To its credit, each month OGIS has been able to close more cases than the previous month.

OGIS also reported this week (pdf) the office opened 206 cases since opening its doors in September 2009, resolving 149 of them as of May 5, 2010.  OGIS has hired a staff, started offering dispute resolution trainings for FOIA officers and made presentations at numerous conferences and workshops.

OGIS reports that roughly a quarter (24  percent) of its cases related to Privacy Act requests, which the office does not handle.  The biggest category of OGIS inquiries related to denials (28 percent).  Requests for information account for roughly another fourth of all requests, and delays spurred 16 percent of cases.  Other cases dealt with fees (9.5 percent) and other complaints.

OGIS has yet to report mediating a case of meaty differences between requesters and agencies.  Helping requesters avoid the annoying, frustrating and oftentimes confounding procedural problems with FOIA are a great contribution.  Requesters and agencies have not had a place to go for an independent voice to weigh in on FOIA disputes. How many of these resolved cases would have gone to litigation?  How many resulted in a different outcome, where the agency addressed a deficiency to avoid a later lawsuit, or a requester understood the nature of the agency’s decision to withhold, and avoided a costly lawsuit?  These are metrics that will show OGIS’s worth, but may be the hardest to come by.

We are still looking for that first good case where OGIS brought in a mediator to resolve a dispute.

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