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FOIA Facts: Things Requesters Should Know

By Scott A. Hodes, Published on May 19, 2012

Over the past few years, I have spoken to FOIA Analysts about how they can make the FOIA process smoother in regard to their relationships with requesters. This however is a double edged coin – FOIA requesters can also do things to make the process smoother when dealing with government FOIA personnel.

Of course even if a requester does everything perfectly, they may still have problems along the way. However, I strongly believe that the adage that you can attract more bees with honey than vinegar is aptly spoken in the FOIA context.

So what can requesters do to help themselves in the FOIA process? From my own experiences and the knowledge of FOIA professionals, I have a few suggestions to offer. First, do not shoot the messenger. From the start treat the FOIA request process as a professional one. Be polite. Remember that these individuals are increasingly under the gun with FOIA Offices seeing budget cuts. Do not be hostile with the FOIA staff you are dealing with. I know this better than anyone – and I do on occasion violate this rule myself. However, if you start out hostile, FOIA staff will not want to help move your request through the queue—and with many FOIA Operations backlogged, they have plenty of requests to work on. If you are having issues with a specific FOIA employee, ask to either speak to a supervisor or use the Office of Government Information Services to work through the problem. Many FOIA Offices do not have direct access to the records you seek – and they are relying on other agency personnel to search and retrieve these records. Chances are, if there is a delay, it’s those non-FOIA employees causing it, and the FOIA employee is actually just as unhappy as you are that there is a delay in the process. So don’t take it out on them; in fact, if you find out that this is true, use any contacts you have within the agency to help prod agency personnel to get the documents or other needed information to the FOIA staff.

Next, when making your request be concise but as specific as possible in your phrasing of the request. If you want a contract give specific information such as the contract number, procurement officer or request for proposal information. If you want something about an incident, describe it in detail. If you want something on a third person, provide either a proof of death, waiver or description as to why you believe the release is in the public interest. If there are multiple items you seek, provide a clear and readable list of what you want.

You do not want to, however, write any of your request in a hostile tone – the FOIA Office is not your enemy and if your request comes off as a manifesto against the government, it will not assist you in getting the material you seek. This makes my next suggestion a bit tricky, as many FOIA professionals have told me that its helpful to know why you want the request. While the reason you want the material isn’t important for the ultimate release decision, it helps the FOIA professionals to know why you want it for search reasons. And make sure that your reason for wanting the material is separate from the actual material you are requesting.

You should also make sure you either seek a fee waiver at the beginning of the process or promise to pay a set amount for the material. Don’t send in any money at the start; not only will that not help but it will cause extra work in getting you a refund. Follow up on your requests - but not too much. No one wants to hear from a requester on a daily basis. At the most, once a week should be sufficient.

Hopefully these tips will help smooth out the FOIA process. I’ve told similar things to FOIA professionals over the years. The best ones, especially in management, realize they are in customer service and the requester is the customer.