Requester Best Practices: Filing a FOIA Request
As the FOIA Ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) observes the FOIA process and strategies that seem to work best for requesters. What follows are some best practices for making a FOIA request and some recommended resources for learning more about the FOIA process.
Note: The information below assumes that you have already determined that you need to file a FOIA request. If you are not certain whether you need the FOIA process, spend some time making sure that the information you seek is not already publicly available. Look at the agency's Web site, particularly the electronic reading room. FOIA can be a lengthy and costly process, so a little preliminary research may save you time and money.
1. Figure out what you want
When beginning the process of requesting government information under FOIA, it is important to understand what you can ask for. First and foremost, FOIA is a tool that allows people to request records from the government. This means that you cannot:
- Send a question to an agency and expect an answer; or
- Make a request that would require an agency to create a new record (such as synthesizing data from multiple sources) or to conduct research; or
- Ask an agency to explain the information contained in its records.
So how do you know what to ask for? One way to get started is to do a little background research on your topic, observing the types of records that other researchers have obtained. Doing this might help you glean what kinds of documents and reports a particular agency produces.
Another strategy is to look at the web sites of groups that work with FOIA. The National Security Archive is an excellent source of information about FOIA, including an extensive repository of records that can give you a sense of what might be available and a good guide, titled Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone. It is available on the Web (see Resources, below).
2. Figure out where it is
Government agencies are not necessarily centralized, including when it comes to records. Although the branches of the military may fall under the Department of Defense, submitting a request for Army records to the main DoD FOIA office will waste time and resources. Similarly, many agencies (like the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the National Parks Service) have branch offices all over the country, and all of those offices hold records.
Figuring out where to send your request may be easier than it sounds. Begin by looking at the FOIA page on the agency's Web site - it may contain information about where records are housed. If you are still confused about where to send your request, you can contact the agency's FOIA Public Liaison for advice. You also may contact OGIS for assistance.
3. Ask for what you want and nothing more
Depending on the agency, FOIA professionals may process a number of requests every week. FOIA professionals want to process your request as quickly as possible, but please remember that this is an instance where less is truly more. It may be tempting to describe what you are looking for and why you want it at length, but too much information may complicate the process. Be simple, direct and polite.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has several excellent resources on writing a clear, concise and effective FOIA request on its Web site. Look in particular at RCFP's FOIA Letter Generator.
4. Keep an eye on the clock
FOIA establishes time limits for agencies to reply to requests. Many agencies face an overwhelming number of requests, enormous backlogs, and insufficient staff to handle the FOIA case load within the statutory time limit. Delays, while undesirable, are a reality of the FOIA process.
So, while it may be unrealistic to expect that your request will be answered within the 20-day window, what can you expect? At the very least, the agency should be keeping you informed of the status of your request. You should receive an acknowledgement letter with a tracking number - retain this information and include it with any correspondence. If you become concerned about the status of your request, you can contact the agency's FOIA Public Liaison for an update, or you may contact OGIS if efforts to reach the FOIA Public Liaison fail.
5. FOIA professionals are people too
When you are sending a FOIA request to a government agency, it is easy to forget that there is a person receiving it on the other end. The FOIA process can be frustrating and confusing, but a reasonable, friendly tone can help establish a good relationship with agency personnel. If your acknowledgment letter does not identify an agency point of contact, you should consult the online list of agency FOIA contacts. You may wish to contact this person and/or the FOIA Public Liaison about the status of your request.
We hope that you find these tips helpful. Happy requesting!
National Security Archive: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/
Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/foia/foia_guide.html
List of agency FOIA Public Liaisons: justice.gov/oip/public-liaisons.htm
List of agency FOIA contacts: justice.gov/oip/foiacontacts.htm
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: rcfp.org/foia/
RCFP's FOIA Letter Generator: rcfp.org/foialetter