Federal agencies’ FOIA offices widely struggle with backlogs and limited resources. Some agencies look to control the workflow by sending “still interested” inquiries (often in the form of letters) to requesters. These inquiries ask if requesters are still interested in receiving documents, and indicate that the request will be closed in a certain time period if the agency receives no response.
In October 2014, 13 groups including OpenTheGovernment.org wrote to the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), asking that OGIS investigate agencies’ use of the letters. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) also published a deep dive into the practice, interviewing both advocates and journalists about the use of the letters. Although the legality of the practice is still unclear, OIP’s guidance addresses several of civil society’s concerns expressed in the letter to OGIS and RCFP’s article.
Civil society groups were invited to share ideas for what should be included in OIP’s guidance in a call last month. The new guidance advises agencies to allow requesters a minimum of 30 days to respond to the “still-interested” communication. If the requester misses the deadline, their request may still be reopened and placed in its original spot in the agency’s queue. OIP also emphasizes that the agency must have reasonable grounds to make a “still-interested” inquiry, and the letters should not be the first communication with the requester.