Freedom of Information Act:

Office of Government Information Services Has Begun Implementing Its Responsibilities, but Further Actions Are Needed

GAO-13-650: Published: Sep 10, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2013.

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Valerie C. Melvin
(202) 512-6304
melvinv@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

Since its establishment in 2009, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) has provided comments on proposed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations for 18 of 99 federal agencies that administer FOIA, as well as a number of Privacy Act system of records notices. 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. 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 FOIA requirements. OGIS is in the early stages of developing a methodology for conducting such reviews, but has not established a time frame for completion. Until OGIS establishes a methodology and time frame for proactively reviewing agencies' FOIA policies, procedures, and compliance, the office will not be positioned to effectively execute its responsibilities as required by the act.

OGIS is providing mediation services and is resolving disputes that might otherwise go unresolved or lead to litigation, although not all of its efforts have been successful. OGIS has achieved positive results for about two-thirds of the cases reviewed by GAO where mediation services were provided. For example, in several cases, one or both parties took action or modified their position after OGIS's intervention. Nevertheless, the office lacks quantifiable goals and measures for its mediation activities, as required by law. For example, it does not have goals to measure timeliness or success. Without these important management tools, OGIS cannot determine how effectively its mediation services are in improving the implementation of FOIA.

Since April 2012, OGIS has issued nine recommendations to Congress and the President aimed at improving the administration of FOIA. These recommendations focus on areas where OGIS could help agencies improve their FOIA processes as well as areas where its role could be made more effective. These recommendations were based on its ongoing work with federal agencies and with members of the public. In addition, while not required to issue guidance or best practices, the office collects best practices for improving FOIA processing from several sources, including its reviews of agencies' annual FOIA reports and mediation case files, as well as anecdotally from persons involved in mediation cases facilitated by the office. OGIS shares these best practices in its annual reports and on its website and blog.

Why GAO Did This Study

The OPEN Government Act of 2007 amended FOIA and established OGIS within the National Archives and Records Administration to provide oversight and assistance to federal agencies in implementing FOIA. To evaluate how effectively the office is meeting its responsibilities, GAO assessed the actions that the office has taken to (1) implement its responsibilities for reviewing agencies' policies, procedures, and compliance with FOIA; (2) mediate disputes between FOIA requesters and federal agencies; and (3) recommend policy changes to Congress and the President and develop and issue guidance and best practices to improve the administration of FOIA. To do so, GAO analyzed documents describing the office's plans and activities for conducting reviews, mediation case files, and documents describing its policy recommendations made to Congress and the President and its guidance and best practices. GAO also interviewed officials at relevant agencies.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending that OGIS fulfill its statutory responsibilities by establishing (1) a time frame for completing and implementing a methodology for proactively reviewing agencies' policies, procedures, and compliance with FOIA requirements and (2) measures and goals for its mediation services. In written comments on a draft of the report, the National Archives and Records Administration concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Valerie C. Melvin at (202) 512-6304 or melvinv@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NARA concurred with our recommendation and, in response, OGIS took action in March 2014 to develop a methodology for how it planned to review agency policies, procedures, and compliance with FOIA. Subsequently, in September 2014, the office conducted a review of NARA's Office of Inspector General FOIA program and, in January 2015, a review of NARA's Special Access and FOIA Program. As of September 2016, our review of OGIS's website and reports determined that the office had conducted seven reviews of agency FOIA programs. Further, OGIS had posted on its website its schedule for conducting reviews during the fiscal year.

    Recommendation: To ensure that OGIS effectively performs its responsibilities under FOIA, as amended by the OPEN Government Act, the Archivist of the United States should direct the Executive for Agency Services and the Director of OGIS to establish a time frame for completing and implementing a methodology that defines, among other things, the scope, schedule, criteria, and evaluation questions for conducting reviews of federal agencies' FOIA policies, procedures, and compliance.

    Agency Affected: National Archives and Records Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NARA concurred with our recommendation and, in response, OGIS developed goals and metrics to measure performance related to its mediation services. Specifically, OGIS began measuring the percent of cases in which initial contact with customers seeking the office's assistance is made within 10 working days. A second metric was established to measure OGIS's ability to process, within 90 days, 85 to 95 percent of the requests for assistance that it receives. In OGIS's 2016 report to Congress on its fiscal year 2015 performance, the office stated that it closed requests received for its assistance within an average of 42 working days.

    Recommendation: To ensure that OGIS effectively performs its responsibilities under FOIA, as amended by the OPEN Government Act, the Archivist of the United States should direct the Executive for Agency Services and the Director of OGIS to establish performance measures and goals for OGIS's mediation services that define success in handling a case and include relevant goals for the number of cases handled successfully, as well as goals for timely management of cases based on past experience.

    Agency Affected: National Archives and Records Administration

 

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