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What’s Up with Referrals? Redux

Back in May, we posted a recommendation on this blog regarding referrals. We’d recently had several OGIS cases in which agencies making referrals neither identified the name of the agencies to which they referred requests nor offered to assist requesters in determining the status of the referred requests. The requests appeared to have disappeared into a black hole, and we were concerned that by providing no avenue for the requester to determine the status of the referred request, the FOIA process was shutting down

To avoid that, OGIS recommended that a referring agency identify the receiving agency and provide the requester with contact information for a FOIA professional in the receiving agency, allowing the requester to track the request. In those atypical cases in which identifying the receiving agency would reveal a sensitive, exempt fact, we said, the agency making the referral should continue to assist the requester in determining the status of the referred request in the unidentified agency.

We’re pleased that the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy has issued guidance on this topic, which is in line with OGIS’s recommendation. The guidance, which lays out procedures for processing records under FOIA when another agency or entity has in interest in them, updates guidance OIP issued in 1991. It includes some common-sense guidelines for FOIA professionals, whether they’re making referrals or receiving them.

Under the new guidance, requesters should now receive acknowledgment of receipt of a referral along with a referral tracking number and a telephone number or website that can be used to obtain the status of the referred records. (When revealing the name of the agency would reveal a sensitive, exempt fact, agencies should coordinate a response, guidelines for which are included in the guidance.) The guidance also touches on consultations.

OIP sponsored a training session on the guidance on Dec. 12 for FOIA professionals and a roundtable discussion for requesters on Dec. 13. OGIS is all about a fair and efficient process, and we think this guidance is an excellent step toward fairness and efficiency. Let us know what you think.