‘FOIA Ombudsman’ Working with Justice Dept. to Train Federal Employees
By Ryan J. Reilly | January 20, 2010 3:58 pm

The director of a new office devoted to improving government transparency said her staff is working closely with the Justice Department to educate  federal employees about resolving disputes over Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Office of Government Information Services opened in September, with an office located at the National Archives and Records Administration building in College Park, Md. Its tasks are to mediate disputes between FOIA requesters and federal agencies, review policies and procedures of administrative agencies under FOIA, review agency compliance with FOIA and recommend policy changes to Congress and the president to improve the administration of FOIA.

Miriam M. Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services (photo by Ryan J. Reilly).

Miriam M. Nisbet, director of the OGIS, told Main Justice that her office is already participating in training for DOJ employees related to FOIA requests. She says the office is working on ways to ensure that federal employees know about its  existence.

“Our role is review of agency compliance, and as part of that role we will be and are working together with the Justice Department,” said Nisbet, who appeared at a panel discussion on the issue of transparency Wednesday morning at American University’s Washington College of Law marking the one year anniversary of the Obama administration.

Another panelist noted that it was essential that OGIS, the so-called “FOIA ombudsman,” is not in the Justice Department hierarchy.

“It’s important to have the OGIS outside of the Justice Department,” said Lydia Kay Griggsby, counsel to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Griggsby said that the system allows OGIS to serve in an oversight role. She also said despite lingering concerns about secrecy, it was important to acknowledge that the government is in a “very different place” than it was under the administration of George W. Bush.

But other panelists noted that they see problems with government transparency under the Obama administration, some from longstanding issues related to FOIA requests.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff (photo by Ryan J. Reilly).

“FOIA requests are kind of a crapshoot,” said Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. “There’s very little way of knowing how the process works.” He argued for the establishment of a FOIA requester advocate in federal offices, telling Nisbet that while OGIS was serving a role, “I don’t think you’re getting in the weeds at the level of individual FOIA requests.”

“It’s all well and good to promise transparency about what the last administration did,” said Isikoff, adding that it’s more important to look at government officials’ behavior when the administration is being asked for information on its own  actions.

A new policy on FOIA requests was outlined in a March 19, 2009, memo authored by Attorney General Eric Holder. It directed government agencies to presume disclosure of information, and even begin to proactively post documents online. ”First, an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally,” Holder wrote in his memo.

But the transparency presumption hasn’t quite taken root, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli acknowledged in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last Semptember. The new FOIA policy has been “broadly implemented, but I’m hesitant to say fully implemented,” he said.

In a previous interview with Main Justice, Nisbet said the system “doesn’t work the way we want it to …  It’s a pretty big architecture, and it’s not going to change over night. Do I believe [OGIS] will make a difference? Absolutely. But it’s not going to happen in a matter of months.”

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