Last year, I suggested four pointers on making effective FOIA requests. This year I have three more suggestions to help requesters get what they want more effectively.
1. Send the request to the correct office. Knowing how an agency works and where the correct office to send a FOIA request is invaluable. Only once the request gets to the proper FOIA office does the time the agency has for responding begin to toll. Additionally, some agencies have decentralized FOIA offices—such as the FBI—where a request for material from a field office has to go to that field office. However, other agencies like the DEA are centralized—meaning all requests go to one FOIA office regardless of where in the country the records were created. Note that both DEA and FBI are components of the same agency, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”). Sending a request for FBI or DEA records to DOJ will cause needless delay in getting your request processed.
2. Find out who the agency wants to receive the request. Agencies often have a preference on how they receive requests, such as by regular mail, facsimile or over the internet. Find out how they want to receive it and do it that way. Many agencies have moved away from standard mail due to security problems with mail service. I’ve had mail take up to three months to actually get to the FOIA office, so I recommend faxing and the internet when given the choice.
3. Follow up. If you don’t hear anything about your request within a few weeks of submitting it—contact the agency to find out if they have it. And even if you’ve heard from them after submitting the request but don’t hear for awhile after, contact them. As long as you are pleasant they will let you know the status of your request. If you are upset with the pace of the request, do not take it out on the analyst on the other end of the phone—chances are they are as unhappy with their agency’s failure to budget the FOIA office as much as you are.
I hope these assist you in making your requests. Please let me know if you have found anything that helps in making more effective requests—I’ll add them in my next part on this series.