FOIA Ombuds Observer, No. 2020-01
The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) offers dispute resolution services to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters and agencies. This function allows OGIS to observe and examine the interactions between requesters and agencies across the Federal government, and note common questions and issues that arise in the FOIA process. The FOIA Ombuds Observer addresses questions and issues frequently seen in our individual cases. Our goal is to increase efficiency and transparency in the FOIA process.
Estimated Dates of Completion: Best Practices for Requesters
March 31, 2020
A Note to Readers
This Ombuds Observer–which reflects months of research and the review of hundreds of Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) cases–was written prior to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It does not reflect the challenges many FOIA offices face as their staff members distance themselves physically from one another and, in some cases, from the computer and records systems upon which they depend to process requests.
Please note that a particular agency’s capability to respond to FOIA requests will vary depending on the records held by the agency and technology used by the FOIA staff. This situation is extremely fluid as agencies are creating new processes and learning the extent of their limitations. For this reason, we anticipate that there are likely to be COVID-19-related processing delays at many agencies, and in some cases, estimated dates of completion will be more difficult than ever to determine.
As OGIS communicates with agencies regarding their capabilities in the current environment, we will do our best to keep the FOIA community informed. We expect that the landscape will continue to change daily. In the meantime, we are publishing this assessment now because we believe that the core message–that it is essential for agencies to communicate with requesters about the status of requests–is more relevant than ever. We urge agencies to provide information on their FOIA page regarding their current status and to update that information as the situation changes. Finally, we ask requesters to recognize the challenges faced by agencies and to be patient during this extraordinary time.
Every day, OGIS receives inquiries from customers regarding estimated dates of completion (EDCs) for their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The inquiries include questions about FOIA’s requirement for providing EDCs, requests to obtain an EDC for a particular request, requests to explain an EDC already provided, as well as complaints that an agency has not provided an EDC upon request as required by FOIA.
FOIA requires agencies to establish a telephone line or online service that provides requesters with status information, including the date on which the agency originally received the request and “an estimated date on which the agency will complete action on the request.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(7). Most agencies have FOIA backlogs, so many requesters are likely to run into an EDC issue. An OGIS issue assessmentand advisory opinion on this issue are available on our website.
We offer the following tips:
- All Federal agencies have resources for you to check the status of your request. If you seek an EDC for your FOIA request, we recommend that you first try to check the status of your request on the agency’s online FOIA portal or website; you may also contact the FOIA Requester Service Center or the FOIA professional assigned to your request (if known) to inquire about the status of your request. FOIA contact information for agencies is available on FOIA.gov.
- Remember that an EDC is just an estimate and may change. An EDC may change for several reasons: the volume of responsive records is greater than the agency first thought it would locate; the agency needs more time than it first thought it needed to review records; or the volume of requests the agency receives increases unexpectedly and strains the resources of the agency. Judicial orders to process records as part of FOIA litigation also affect processing times of other requests and can result in a change in the EDC for your request.
- If you are notified that your EDC has changed, you may wish to contact the agency's FOIA Public Liaison (FPL) to discuss the reason for that change and whether you can narrow the scope of your request based on subject matter or time frame. All Federal agencies have an FPL whose role is to explain the FOIA process and assist requesters with their FOIA requests at any stage of the administrative process. If you narrow the scope of your request, you may receive a more timely EDC (and a faster response) than you would otherwise.
- Agency average processing times for FOIA requests are available at FOIA.gov and in the Annual FOIA reports that agencies submit to the Attorney General and the Director of the Office of Government Information Services. (Please note that the data provided at FOIA.gov is from the most recent fiscal year for which data is available and may be at least one year old.)
- Agencies calculate processing times in work/business days; weekends and public holidays are not counted.
- Be patient. Delays, while unfortunate, are an unavoidable aspect of FOIA for most agencies
At an impasse? Contact OGIS—we’re here to help: firstname.lastname@example.org / 202-741-5770 / 1-877-684-6448.