Submitting a FOIA request can be tricky, frustrating work, and instant gratification is a rare occurrence. But there are a number of things you can do to make things easier while improving the odds that your request will be processed efficiently. These FOIA tips and tricks will help you streamline and focus your request.
1) Do your RESEARCH first.
--A FOIA request should be an information-gathering tool of last resort, as it can be costly and time-consuming.
--Know your issue before you make a request. Read all the literature on your topic and correspond with or interview the principal officials.
--Ascertain whether the information is already publicly available. First and foremost, contact agency FOIA reading rooms. (Reading rooms are not required under the FOIA, but many agencies maintain them anyway.) For documents dated prior to the mid-1960's, contact the National Archives. Also, check government document rooms. Finally, contact journalists or public interest groups that have interest in your topic.
Doing your research first will inform you as to the key events and key decision makers on your topic, help you pinpoint documents and agencies in your requests, and keep you from requesting material extraneous to your interest. If you don't do your research, you won't have any reference points for making your FOIA requests, and they probably won't bear much fruit.
2) WRITE your request clearly, and be specific.
--Overly broad requests and "fishing expeditions" are wasteful to you and the taxpayers. Don't file frivolous requests, either. FOI offices are already overburdened enough with specific requests that will eventually provide significant information.
--Be specific: assume the FOI officer is not familiar with your topic. Many agencies perform computerized searches for documents, so use keywords and phrases. For example, an agency cannot search "escalation of tensions," but can search "military assistance." Also, provide accurate titles and dates, full names, et cetera. In other words, assist the person doing the search by providing key items of information.
--Keep your requests brief. Don't write two-page supporting essays for your request, as they will only confuse the FOI officer.
3) TARGET your request.
Send your request to the agency most likely to hold the records. While the Department of State and the CIA have one centralized FOIA office, the military branches, for example, have individual FOIA offices with each unit. The FBI, among others, maintains records at headquarters and in regional offices. Contacting an agency to determine the location of records can save delays in your responses. However, if you do not know who holds the records, ask the headquarters FOIA office to forward it to the correct location.
4) Establish and maintain CONTACT with the agency
--Response letters often identify a point-of-contact or case officer for your FOIA request. If not, after a few weeks, call and check on the status of your request and identify the case officer. Your effort will indicate to the FOI officer your continued interest in the request. The FOI officer can then advise you of estimated fees, seek clarification, advise you on delays, and advise you if extraneous material is located.
--Don't harass your FOI officer with too many calls or letters. Your request is not the only case they are working on; also consider that some agencies have program officers handle FOIA as well as their other policy work.
5) Stay ADMINISTRATIVELY correct
--Correspondence. Every request is a potential lawsuit; therefore, you ought to note all substantive telephone contacts in addition to the agency correspondence you receive. For example, while only some agencies may require you to submit their denial letters with your appeal, it is helpful to include anyway. Lack of correspondence may at best delay their response, and at worst allow them to not consider an appeal. Also, as requests can become complex and documentation voluminous, it is helpful to create a filing or tracking system for your own use.
--Time frames. You cannot appeal an agency's lack of initial response until the agency has had 10 working days to respond. Also, agencies may, at their discretion, accept your appeal for a denial of documents beyond their appeal period. Finally, you may not file a lawsuit on a delayed appeal response before 20 working days have elapsed.
6) DELAYS, while unfortunate, are normal.
Delays in processing are common government-wide. Most agency delays are short, perhaps only a week or two. However, agencies that handle national security information have delays ranging from a few months to several years. These agencies maintain heavy backlogs due primarily to the time- and resource-consuming review of classified material. Additionally, the number of classified documents increased dramatically in the 1980's. Also, in many instances, various agencies can have input into a single classified document. Upon review such a document must be coordinated to each agency for review. These delay issues are exacerbated by the fact that, for most agencies, FOIA is not an agency priority, budget or otherwise, meaning delays will continue to plague the system.
7) Be REASONABLE
--Consider the FOIA officer receiving your request. A well-written request, helpful contact, and a non-confrontational manner on your end will only aid the processing of your request. The FOIA officer is often faced with bureaucratic or ideological intransigence within his or her own agency. Again, pestering your FOIA contact at an agency may mean jeopardizing a helpful source of information.
--Don't send frivolous letters or file pointless appeals; they will delay processing of yours and others requests. You can gauge this in your contacts with FOIA officers.
Government information is the public's information. That said, the system of access to this information, the Freedom of Information Act, works best when you use some finesse. Be sufficiently prepared, not unknowledgable. Be firm, not confrontational. Be diligent, not frivolous. Above all, be patient. But be mindful, that this work is essential to the function of democracy.