Retiring head of OGIS hails FOIA portal a success

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Bill Holzerland, director of the Divsion of Information Disclosure at the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health; Miriam Nisbet, founding director of the Office of Government Infmraiton Services; and panel moderator Scott Hodes, an attorney, discuss the history of OGIS (Credit: Whitney Blair Wyckoff/FedScoop) Bill Holzerland, director of the Division of Information Disclosure at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health; Miriam Nisbet, founding director of the Office of Government Information Services; and panel moderator Scott Hodes, an attorney, discuss the history of OGIS. (Credit: Whitney Blair Wyckoff/FedScoop)

The retiring chief of the agency that acts as an ombudsman for federal Freedom of Information Act requests pointed to FOIAonline as a major agency achievement Friday.

“To say it’s a success is not overstating things,” said Miriam Nisbet, founding director of the Office of Government Information Services, at a panel celebrating the creation of the agency five years ago.

FOIAonline is a platform that allows users to submit Freedom of Information requests to certain agencies. Created out of a collaboration between OGIS, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Department two years ago, the system tracks requests and provides a repository of previously released records. Nisbet said the portal now hosts 120,000 users accounts and has 12 partner agencies, including the U.S. Navy.

Just about every agency has a method of processing FOIA requests, though, many don’t use a digital processing system, Nisbet told FedScoop after her panel. Originally, only three agencies signed up as portal partners. Looking ahead, Nesbit said she hopes more agencies will continue to sign up to participate.

“The portal is improving all the time,” she said. “There have been upgrades and improvements to the services almost continuously.”

Nisbet was one of several speakers at the event held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and sponsored by the OGIS, OpenTheGovernment.org and the Newseum Institute.

During the subsequent panel, senior staffers for members of Congress also lauded the portal.

“OGIS’s role in the creation of that really gave it the gravitas it needed to really take off and have support and credibility,” said Krista Boyd, minority counsel for the House Oversight and Government Reform. She added, “I can say from the Oversight Committee’s perspective, certainly on a bipartisan basis, we feel very strongly that technology should be used in a way that makes the FOIA process more streamlined, better for requesters and better for agencies.”

The staffers also discussed the prospects for new legislation to provide OJIS with more autonomy to oversee FOIA disputes. The House version (H.R. 1211) cleared the chamber earlier this year. A slightly different version in the Senate (S. 2520) still awaits action. April Carson, majority counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the committee plans to mark up the bill after elections.

“Although it’s a difficult environment, I think [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick] Leahy at least is very optimistic and is going to champion this bill just like he has in previous FOIA reform,” Carson said.

During the half-day event, the Sunshine in Government Initiative presented Nesbit with a Sunshine in Government award for her work at OGIS. Nesbit plans to retire at the end of November.

“I’m just going to see what happens,” she said of her future plans.

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Agencies, April Carson, Bill Holzerland, data analytics, Departments, Government IT News, House Oversight and Government Reform, Miriam Nisbet, National Archives and Records Administration, Newseum Institute, OGIS, open data, open government, OpentheGovernment.org, Scott Hodes, Tech
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