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FOIA Facts: Points to Remember

By Scott A. Hodes, Published on September 28, 2007

When making FOIA requests here are some very important things to consider. I know I’ve written many, if not all of these before, but many folks contact me after the requests have been made and they haven’t followed these steps, so I am reiterating them again.

Make your requests as broad as possible at the outset. For example if you want a document from an individual’s office, but don’t know the title of it, don’t just guess a title and ask for the memo from John Doe. Ask for any memos or other correspondence from John Doe or the office John Doe is in or in charge of for a certain time period. This will cast a much broader net. While some people in government may read your request broadly, others are quite literal and will make your request as narrow as possible. By making the request broad, you don’t give them the chance to do this.

Fear that making a request too broad will make you incur an overly large amount of fees can be reduced in a number of ways. Initially, only promise to pay fees up to an amount you are comfortable with. If the fees exceed that amount, the agency will then have to contact you to get you to authorize additional fees. Additionally, if the fees are larger than you want to pay, you can negotiate with the agency to narrow your request. Most agencies are only too happy to reduce the size of a FOIA request so that they can get it out the door and out of their incoming FOIA queue.

When making requests provide as much information about the topic as possible. If you know facts about the subject of your request, you should provide them to the FOIA Office. FOIA people often don’t know very much, if anything, about the subject of the requests to their agencies. If you provide as much information about the subject of your request it will expedite the processing of your request as the search for responsive documents will be that much easier. This is true for almost all agencies, even those that use computerized databases. A computerized database is only as good as the search terms provided to it.

Thus, by making your requests broad and specific, you’ll have more chances of success with your FOIA requests.