Miriam M. Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration, delivered the keynote address at the National Freedom of Information Coalition Summit. (Photo by Michael T. Martinez)
Miriam Nisbet discussed her role and efforts as the inaugural director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), National Archives and Records Administration, the new FOIA ombudsman office created by the 2007 amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Nisbet discussed OGIS's two statutory missions - to provide mediation services and to review agency compliance with FOIA and provide recommendations to Congress and the President for improvements.
"Having an administration that is promoting open government, really pushing for agencies to work in open ways, and a president that knows how to spell FOIA is extremely helpful," said Nisbet. "Talking about changing the culture, to think about openness, not making access and afterthought or added layer. Even having that talked about at the leadership level is a huge improvement in the federal government."
Nisbet said her small staff mediates FOIA disputes as they come in and has handled roughly 200 cases since the office opened in September 2009.
OGIS also works with a designated FOIA liaison at every federal agency who is tasked with tracking the status and scope of FOIA requests and to handle disputes. OGIS is providing dispute resolution training to these new FOIA liaisons.
When Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council asked about the "culture of contempt for the public's right to know" that pervades in Washington, Nisbet acknowledged it is a problem. "I really can't argue with you," Nisbet said. “Not everyone has gotten the word that you can make discretionary releases of information that is exempt. We’re working on that.”
Nisbet also addressed concerns that OGIS was not an independent institution. “We feel pretty comfortable that we are independent," said Nisbet, who said she has not had one inkling that OGIS is not independent. "So far, so good,” she quipped.
As a means for identifying issues at the agency level, Nisbet cited the agency annual reports and new reports required from the new FOIA liaisons as a means to establish metrics for the scope of FOIA issues and problems. OGIS will also be looking at technological improvements to be made, and will have a database expert joining their staff shortly, said Nisbet.
Overall, Nisbet said she views the ombudsman piece of the overall mission as striving "to be a resource for anyone who needs assistance in making the FOIA work better."