OIP Issues Guidance on “Still Interested” FOIA Letters – July 7, 2015 Newsletter

– Brief Updates on Coalition Partners & Others (more)
– OIP Issues Guidance on Agencies’ “Still Interested” FOIA Letters (more)

– Agencies Need to Jumpstart Efforts to Meet Foreign Aid Transparency Deadlines (more)

News from Coalition Partners & Others

EPIC Challenges Secrecy about Government Profiling Program

On June 29th, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the US Customs and Border Protection for documents related to the agency’s “Analytical Framework for Intelligence” and the analytic tools used to assign “risk assessments” to travelers.  

POGO Wins Awards for Excellence in Journalism

Several of the Project On Government Oversight’s investigative projects were honored by the Society of Professional Journalists D.C. Chapter in June. POGO’s investigations of prosecutorial misconduct at the Department of Justice, the pattern of retaliation against whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the revolving door between big businesses and government won prizes.  

OIP Issues Guidance on Agencies’ “Still Interested” FOIA Letters

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.

Agencies Need to Jumpstart Efforts to Meet Foreign Aid Transparency Deadlines

The United States is the largest single provider of foreign assistance, but the majority of US government donors still fail to publish data in a timely and detailed manner. On July 1st, Publish What You Fund published the US Aid Transparency Review, finding that despite some progress, many agencies are not on track to meet the December 2015 deadline to publish their aid data. USAID made great strides in the past year, but the Departments of State, Treasury, and Defense must redouble their efforts to meet the standards of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). The US committed to increase transparency of foreign assistance in its first and second open government National Action Plans.