September 18, 2008

Federal FOIA Ombuds Office Remains in Limbo

Although it has been nine months since Congress passed a bill to establish an Ombuds office to mediate Freedom of Information Act disputes, the office has yet to become a reality. Implementation was delayed when the Bush administration attempted to move the new Office of Government Information Services from the National Archives, where Congress placed it, to the Justice Department. At a hearing on Wednesday before the House Committe on Oversight and Government Reform, witnesses stressed that the OGIS office should remain at the National Archives in order to preserve its role as an independent mediator in FOIA disputes. Several panelists offered specific recommendations, including Terry Mutchler, who worked as a state open records ombudsman in Illinois and is now establishing a new Pennsylvania ombudsman office. Mutchler said the new federal ombudsman office must have an independent director who is committed to open government, to a mission focused on open government, and who can establish a structure and process for dealing with disputes. Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative agreed, saying that, "It needs to be a completely independent office." (Government Executive; FOIA Blog;
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)

Prior posts: Bill to Create FOIA Ombuds Goes to President; Bush Defunds FOIA Ombuds Program; Senate Approves Funding for New FOIA Ombuds Office.

Independence is one of the basic criteria that defines an Ombudsman (whether classical or organizational). Let's be honest, an Ombuds office without independence would be either a paper tiger or political puppet; an "Ombuds" in name only.

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