SEPTEMBER 11, 2013
An agency created by Congress years ago to promote government transparency by facilitating the treacherous process of obtaining public records has failed to do its job, according to a federal audit.
Is anyone really surprised? With a $1 million infusion from Congress, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) was promoted with great fanfare in 2009 as an objective ombudsman that would force federal agencies to comply with public records requests. Part of its mission is resolving disputes between federal agencies and those who request records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Judicial Watch has a lot of experience in this area because FOIA is a valuable tool in our mission to promote government transparency and accountability and expose public corruption. In many cases, especially when the stakes are high, federal agencies violate FOIA deadlines—or simply disregard the law all together—and JW must initiate litigation.
OGIS was created precisely to curb a shameful surge in FOIA violations by the U.S. government. In fact, media and government transparency groups across the nation hailed it as a “milestone” that would finally force agencies to be more responsive to FOIA requests from journalists and ordinary citizens. There was great hope that the new office would efficiently mediate disputes over requests and help ease the grueling and costly process of pursuing records when agencies refuse to turn them over.
This has not occurred, according to a federal audit released this week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. The OGIS “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 writes in its report.
The GAO further found that, since it was established four years ago, the agency hasn’t developed a methodology for conducting reviews of agencies’ FOIA policies and procedures or for compliance with FOIA requirements. Makes you wonder what the public employees at the OGIS’s Maryland headquarters have been doing all these years. Many Americans may conclude that this agency is a pointless layer in the government FOIA bureaucracy.
At least we can be thankful for the GAO’s realistic assessment since the OGIS gives itself rave reviews. In its latest annual report (Building a Bridge Between FOIA Requesters & Federal Agencies) the OGIS pats itself on the back for continuing its important mission of providing mediation services to resolve FOIA disputes. “We have assisted nearly 2,000 FOIA requesters, and we closed 354 cases in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 alone,” the report claims.
It goes on: “We are pleased that every year more agencies are adopting OGIS best practices such as good communication with requesters and use of the “team approach” to collaborate with agency colleagues in responding to FOIA requests. These best practices not only help resolve disputes, but also prevent them.”
This is laughable since there’s not a government agency anywhere in this country that employs anything that would ever be confused with a “team approach” when it comes to public records requests. Quite the contrary; agencies across the spectrum are well known for stalling, dodging, or simply blowing off requests.
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