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“Still interested?” letters – what’s the problem?

FOIA requesters and agency FOIA professionals may not see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. One of these is “still interested?” letters — FOIA shorthand for the letters some agencies send to people with longstanding requests asking if the requester still wants the records. These letters generally require some kind of action on the part of the requester to prevent the agency from closing the request.

From the agency’s perspective, “still interested?” letters can make perfect sense. Executive Order 13392 instructed agency Chief FOIA Officers to conduct annual reviews of their agencies’ backlog and identify ways to reduce or eliminate that backlog. Common sense dictates that before an agency puts effort into processing a request that has risen to the top of the queue, it should first verify that the requester still wants the records. Agencies are interested in — and have real incentive to — eliminate their backlogs.

Many FOIA requesters see these letters differently. Requesters who have been waiting months or years to receive records — sometimes with little or no communication from the agency — may take great umbrage at the receipt of a letter that not only asks if they still want the records, but requires them to contact an agency by a deadline set by the agency in order to keep the request open. “Still interested?” letters can spark bad blood between requesters and agencies.

So what is an agency FOIA professional facing a backlog to do? As with so many aspects of FOIA, the answer lies in good customer service and excellent communications. The Department of Justice Office of Information Policy made this point in a 2010 FOIA Post, cautioning agencies to limit the use of “still interested?” letters and in particular, discouraging multiple letters about the same request. OGIS encourages agencies to stay in touch with requesters about their requests. Regular status updates — or publicizing points of contact such as a FOIA Service Center — may help alleviate the need for “still interested?” letters.

Of course, the best solution to the problem of “still interested?” letters is the elimination of FOIA backlogs. Agencies across the government are diligently working to do just that! Until that day, OGIS encourages agencies and requesters to stay in touch about old requests, consider the tone of their communications, and be mindful of one another’s interests.