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Watchdog: Accountability

FOIA ombudsman not ensuring agencies follow transparency laws

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Watchdog,Watchdog Blog,Michal Conger,Accountability,GAO,FOIA

A federal office tasked with helping the public gain access to government documents been "reactive" instead of proactive in ensuring agencies obey the Freedom of Information Act, and hasn't determined whether those agencies are even following transparency laws, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released this week.

The Office of Government Information Services was created by the OPEN Government Act of 2007 to help both agencies and requesters with the often-complicated FOIA process. But the office has been more focused on its role as FOIA ombudsman than its oversight role over agencies' processes, and hasn't reviewed their compliance with FOIA as required by law.

The Open Government Act of 2007 was a Bush administration proposal submitted as an alternative to much more aggressive FOIA reforms being pushed by transparency advocates across the ideological spectrum.

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 report said.

Not only has OGIS failed to review FOIA processes and compliance, but the office doesn't even have standards in place for conducting such reviews.

"The office has not established a structured methodology for conducting such reviews," the GOA report said. "In addition, the office had not established the criteria against which the agencies' policies, procedures, and compliance with FOIA requirements would be assessed."

Officials told GAO they are in the early stages of drafting a method for compliance reviews, but have no timeline for when it will be implemented.

OGIS's oversight of policies and procedures has also been limited to one-fifth of the 99 agencies required to implement FOIA.

The director of OGIS told the GAO his office has prioritized mediation, and hasn't been able to create a separate team of reviewers.

The GAO recommended OGIS to establish a timeline for developing the scope, criteria and evaluation questions it will use in reviews of federal agencies’ FOIA procedures and compliance.

Read the full report here.

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