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Keep those FOIA requests coming, folks

POSTED: March 19, 2012 3:30 p.m.

As we celebrate Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government, those in the federal Freedom of Information Act community are reminded of the many ways federal records are used by people across the country — and the globe.
Every year, about 600,000 FOIA requests flow into the executive branch asking for records of 15 U.S. cabinet-level departments and 84 smaller agencies, ranging from the mammoth Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to the tiny, by comparison, American Battle Monuments Commission and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. It’s easy to think of FOIA as just another part of the big inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy; indeed, FOIA has its own administrative process.
But the federal FOIA reaches into communities across the country when records relate to issues close to home. Readers of The News Press in Fort Myers, Fla., can learn whether disaster-relief loans made to local businesses were defaulted on or repaid. Households around the nation that use glass bakeware now know that some of those products have a history of shattering. In fact, FOIA requests for those records from Consumer Reports and others prompted the Consumer Product Safety Commission to begin posting product-safety information online at www.SaferProducts.gov.
When requesters run into snags gaining access, they can now ask the federal FOIA Ombudsman’s office for help. The Office of Government Information Services, which opened in 2009, assists FOIA requesters and federal agencies with the FOIA process. Although OGIS exists to work with the federal FOIA process, it is not Washington-centric. A majority of OGIS cases in the past year involved FOIA requests that came not from the District of Columbia and neighboring Maryland and Virginia, but from 46 other states, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and 13 foreign countries.
These requesters came to OGIS after encountering a delay in response or records denials under one of the nine FOIA exemptions. OGIS works to resolve disputes between requesters and agencies to try and prevent litigation. The office also reviews agency FOIA policies, procedures and compliance, and recommends ways to improve the law and its administration.
FOIA is by no means perfect. OGIS exists because Congress saw the need to improve the FOIA process. One of OGIS’s central tenants is advocating not for the requester or for the agency, but for the FOIA process to work as intended. That serves as a great reminder during Sunshine Week, and indeed all year, that FOIA is an important part of our democratic process, regardless of geography. The more informed its citizens, the more a country’s democracy thrives. So keep those FOIA requests coming, and if you run into a hurdle along the way, OGIS is always here to help.

Nisbet is director of the Office of Government Information Services in Washington, D.C. To reach OGIS for assistance, visit www.ogis.archives.gov, call toll-free (877) 684-6448 or email ogis@nara.gov.

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