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FOIA Facts: Making Effective FOIA Requests

By Scott A. Hodes, Published on January 17, 2005

I often am asked about how to make FOIA requests that get results. Here are a few pointers:

1. Be concise. A FOIA request isn’t a novel and the recipient may not be very interested in background facts that have very little to do with the actual request. Furthermore, under the FOIA, why someone wants or feels they need the information is immaterial to whether or not the requester is entitled to the information. Thus, my first rule is keep the request as simple as possible.

2. Be specific. State exactly what records you seek. For instance, if you know the contract number you are seeking, state it in your request. If you have a general idea of the records you seek (time periods, birth dates, people involved), include this information; it will help the agency to locate the requested records.

3. State your promise to pay fees in an amount you are comfortable with. If you were willing to pay fees up to $100 on your request, state it in your letter. If the fees are less than the amount you state, the correspondence time saved (there will be no need to write you asking to promise to pay fees!), will get your records that much faster.

4. When in doubt contact a professional. Someone with FOIA expertise can help you out with your request and guide you through the government’s FOIA procedures.

Miscellaneous Notes

As the New Year dawned, the UK’s Freedom of Information Act came into effect. The previous British records law allowed government agencies to protect records for 30 years. [Editor's note: "From 1 January 2005 each public authority must comply with requests for the information that it holds unless an exemption from disclosure applies. Public authorities will normally have a maximum of twenty working days to respond to the request, however there are circumstances when this time limit can be extended."]

The new law allows for immediate access, much like the U.S. FOIA. The government is now experiencing issues with the FOIA that are not unlike those of the U.S. in the mid 1970s.