Happy Halloween! Tackling a FOIA request may seem daunting, but don’t let that haunt your thoughts. When you break down the FOIA process, it’s not quite as spooky as it might seem at first. Just look to Halloween traditions to help you handle your Freedom of Information requests:
Go Door-to-Door – Agencies within one central government are a bit like houses within the same neighborhood. There is no central office in the U.S. government for FOIA requests. Just as each house has its own bowl of treats, each agency has its own FOIA department and FOIAble information. The first step you must take in submitting your FOIA request is to decide to which agency or agencies to submit a request.
Dress up your FOIA request – When you go door-to-door on Halloween, you aren’t going to get far unless you have the right costume. When it comes to FOIA letters, you have to do a bit of dressing up too. Whoever is on the receiving end of your request is a real person just like you, and letting out your frustrations on the FOIA officer reading your request is not likely to get you far. You’re more likely to get a “treat” when you make your letter professional and polite.
Know some tricks – The Freedom of Information Act has a lot of facets that can be tricky to navigate, especially if you are new to FOIA requests. While there is no initial cost to submitting a FOIA request, researching your data can be costly. Agencies will ask permission before working on requests that will exceed $25, but if you have a budget in mind you can include your financial limit in your initial letter. You can also request a fee waiver when the FOIA information in question can be shown to benefit the public interest and not just personal or commercial gain. That means asking for data about yourself or your company’s competition probably don’t make the cut.
Get your treat – If all goes well, you should receive your FOIA’d information within about a month. Extenuating circumstances may mean your request will have to be processed according to a different timeline. You should check with the individual agency where you sent your request for details on response time.
Don’t be afraid if you don’t get what you expected – Sometimes an agency is unable to find the data you requested or are unable to disclose it. There are a number of exemptions that might prevent your request from being disclosed including: classified information that is a matter of national security, business trade secrets, info from agencies with legal privileges such as attorney-client privilege, invasions into personal privacy of an individual, or supervision of financial institutions.
You may receive a response telling you that your request was too generic to realistically research. Try narrowing your search parameters to help FOIA processing specialists retrieve the info you need. You are also able to appeal a FOIA decision. All you have to do to appeal the initial decision is to send a letter to the agency you solicited stating you are appealing. Once the administrative appeal process is finished, you can also seek mediation from the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives Administration.