How do I Make a Freedom of Information Act Request?

Stephanie Partridge

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows United States citizens, foreign nationals, associations, organizations and universities to request certain federal agency records and information. While just about anyone can submit a FOIA request, there are some things which you can do to make the process go a little smoother for you.

The Freedom of Information Act is intended to make federal government agency information available to all.
The Freedom of Information Act is intended to make federal government agency information available to all.

Before you make your request, make sure that you have exhausted every other avenue of research available. A Freedom of Information Act request should be a last resort mainly because it can be costly and can take a long time, even years, to obtain the information you require. Amendments made in December of 2008 cut some of that time, requiring agencies to respond to FOIA requests within 20 days, but if the case is voluminous or the information is difficult for the agency to access, this may not be possible.

Make sure that the documents that you are requesting are not already available to the public. Visit the agency's website and access their FOIA reading rooms to ensure that the material is not already publicly accessible. Also, determine the correct section of the correct agency so that you can save time and effort. It can be very time consuming if the request has to be passed from agency to agency, or if you have to resubmit your request to the appropriate agency.

Tighten your focus on your request. If it is too broad it just wastes everyone's time. When requesting records, remember that the Freedom of Information Act only requires federal agencies to search for the documents, not create them. It is important to be very specific when requesting government records. Approach your request as if the FOIA officer is unfamiliar with your particular topic. Use relevant keywords and phrases to aid the agency in computerized searches for the material. Where applicable, provide accurate titles, dates and full names that are spelled correctly.

Brevity is vital to a good and successful Freedom of Information Act request. Leave out the narratives, extensive explanations and extensive supporting information. Too much information can be just as confusing for the FOIA officer as too little.

Know what you can request and what you can not. Also, know how to phrase your request. Under the FOIA you may only request documents, photos, records and similar material. You may not frame your request in the form of a question. You have to be specific and know exactly which records or material you want. If you want email from certain people during a certain time, request something like, “any and all email, records and documents that were created between Mr. John Doe and Ms. Jane Doe from 7 October 2006 and 14 October 2007." You have to know what to ask for, but in the end it will help to speed up the response to your request.

Different agencies have different regulations for submitting requests and for appealing adverse responses. Again, you can get a great deal of information from the agency's website. Additionally, maintaining contact with the agency will also help to keep your Freedom of Information Act request moving smoothly. Identify a point of contact in that agency's disclosure office, then establish and maintain contact with the agency through that person. This will help to ensure that your FOIA request is processed and you can avert any possible barriers. Remember, the Freedom of Information Act was created to keep YOU informed of your government's activity.

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