By ANGELA CANTERBURY
We were pleased to receive this response to our recent post on proposed changes to the Department of Justice's system of records from the DOJ's Office of Public Affairs:
The Office of Information Policy’s (OIP) statutory responsibilities include ensuring that agencies are properly complying with the FOIA. When concerns are brought to OIP's attention regarding compliance, OIP will look into the matter. Since the 1980s when responding to these inquiries, OIP has used the term "ombudsman.” This term was used in the department's recently issued update to its System of Records Notice for Freedom of Information Act files. To more accurately denote the type of files at issue, the department will amend its notice and refer to the files as "compliance inquiries."
The numbers of compliance inquiries handled each year are reported in the FOIA Litigation and Compliance Report. For example, in 2010 seventeen inquiries were received. In 2009 thirteen inquiries were received. While those inquiries make up only a tiny fraction of the work OIP does, a description of the files was included in the proposed system notice, using the long-established name used internally work on these inquiries.
The Office of Information Policy does not engage in mediation, which is a function assigned by statute to the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS). Indeed, OIP advises thousands of FOIA requesters each year of the availability of mediation services at OGIS.
One of the reasons OIP is updating its system of records notice is to include a provision that will facilitate disclosure of FOIA request files to the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS). In the course of adding that provision to the notice, the department also updated other elements and in doing so included a description of its files concerning compliance inquiries.
We believe that denoting these files as "compliance inquiries" will be clearer to the public. The work the Office of Information Policy does in responding to these inquiries is for the overall benefit of FOIA administration and is fully in keeping with their statutory responsibilities.
This clarification seems to address POGO's concerns about the potential for confusion in the roles of DOJ and the National Archives and Records Administration in FOIA administration in the proposed rule. But we will have to see how the proposed rule is changed—and more importantly, how DOJ improves its FOIA practices. We also are still waiting for DOJ to affirmatively alter their longtime practice of lying to requesters about the existence of records.
Angela Canterbury is POGO's director of public policy.