WASHINGTON (AP) -- As part of Sunshine Week, when news organizations highlight the importance of government openness, the nation's new Freedom of Information Act ombudsman, Miriam Nisbet, took part in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
Nisbet heads the new U.S. Office of Government Information Services, which was created to help people who encounter obstacles using FOIA. Here are some questions and answers from the interview Friday:
Q: Why is this important to the average citizen, someone who doesn't work for a newspaper?
A: "If people are going to know how their government is operating, what they are doing that affects them, what they are doing on behalf of the people, they have to be able to see the records that reflect that. The documents that are being created, the data that are being produced. Particularly, you look at huge government programs and all the data that come out of that. Those data belong to the people, and they should have a right to see them and then do with them what they want."
Q: Why is it even after the president issued a directive to presume that information is public, that they're still dragging their feet, the message is not getting to the agencies?
A: "You have to have people at the very top, people in leadership positions who not only are believing it and saying it and doing it but who are themselves accountable and who are willing to be accountable if it doesn't work. There's really got to be a culture change and that's just something that doesn't happen overnight."
Q: What can the public do to try to take back this information, change this culture, if anything?
A: "First of all, I'm not going to say, `Everybody out there start using the Freedom of Information Act,' because really and truly that is, it's the least efficient way for people to get information. The much better way is to demand and to also appreciate efforts to get the information out there. ... If people can really interact with government personnel just like they have no hesitation, it seems, to going to their members of Congress. Why? Because they think that when they go to their member of Congress they are going to get an answer. Somebody's going to help them get the answer they want, the information they want, the service they want. They need to be doing the same thing with any agency that affects what they do."
Q: What are your top tips for successfully pursuing a FOIA request?
A: "The most important thing you can do is actually have a conversation with somebody who's handling the request. ... That is sometimes the biggest obstacle, is just there's a lack of understanding from the agency side about what the requester wants and the requester can't know what records the government has."
Q: At what point should people ask your office for help?
A: "Wherever we can help, we will try and make it happen."
Q: What has been sort of the typical problem in the cases you see?
A: "One of the most common problems has been -- no surprise there -- delays in responding to the request. And that could be a matter of weeks, or months or years in a requester getting a response from the agency."
Q: When you investigate, what is the cause of the delay?
A: "FOIA professionals are for the most part very hard-working ... A big problem is when they go to other people in their agency to look for records, other people that they deal with do not necessarily appreciate that the FOIA people are working under time constraints. They aren't necessarily well-versed in why FOIA is important."
Q: How big of a factor is the lack of technology or knowledge of the use of technology in slow responses? It seems incredible sometimes how much government still keeps on paper.
A: "It's a big problem, and again it's resources, it's always resources. ... You know, we're still in a world in the federal government where the official record of e-mail is paper. If it's a record, you print it out and put it in the file that it goes with."
Q: Is money needed to fix some of these problems?
A: "The answer is yes, money will definitely make a difference, and I think particularly as agencies are focusing on and being directed to focus on FOIA as a big piece of the open government plans, we will perhaps see some greater attention to that."
Q: Would you like to see an economic stimulus for FOIA so that everyone gets their information faster?
A: "Sure. Resources is the first thing that everybody mentions, it's the resources and it's the culture change. The culture change, definitely that's beginning, but it's certainly going to take time."
On the Net:
Office of Government Information Services: http://www.archives.gov/ogis/
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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