Requester Best Practices: FOIA & Government Databases
- Know that there is no central government database. There are 99 Federal agencies – 15 Cabinet-level departments and 84 smaller agencies. They each keep separate records and databases, though sometimes components within an agency share databases, which can complicate processing of a request for information within that database.
- Learn which databases agencies have and the types of information contained within those databases. Noodle around on data.gov, agency websites and in agency records schedules (search the web using the agency name and “records schedule.”) You might find that you don’t need to make a FOIA request. Or you might learn something that helps you better frame your request.
- Realize that most agency databases are not designed with FOIA in mind. Also, databases have their shortcomings and the data you seek may not be in the exact form you want.
Don’t let the agency dictate that the data can be used only with specialized software. The data should be in comma-, tab-, ASCII or other delimited format, which is generally easily saved from databases and is usable on a standard desktop computer with commercial off-the-shelf software.
- Be patient. FOIA requires agencies to respond to requests within 20 business days; however, the 20-day limit is difficult if not impossible for many departments and agencies to meet because of a high volume of requests and/or inadequate resources. Ask for an estimated time of completion or work out a strategy with the agency for regular updates if the delay is going to be lengthy. Resist the urge to flood the agency with frequent email messages or letters regarding the same request. Excessive paperwork slows the process, making FOIA less efficient for all requesters and the agency itself.
- Ask the FOIA professional with whom you are working for a technical point of contact who can answer technical questions about the data’s format, record layouts and the like.
- If an agency asks you to sign a data-use agreement, read it and think about it carefully before signing it. Ask questions if you don’t understand it.
- If you’re a journalist, check out the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). NICAR maintains a collection of government databases available to members of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) and offers tips and training for journalists interested in mining government databases. Visit ire.org/nicar/
- At an impasse with an agency? Call OGIS. We’re here to help.