For some, requesting information is not a tough act to follow
FOIA doesn't have to be synonymous with headache.
From the perspective of most requesters, making a Freedom of Information Act request is
a simple, three-step activity. First, they identify the agency that has the records.
Second, they reasonably describe the records, asking for existing documents. Third, they
send a letter that includes a phone number so the agency can contact them if necessary.
That covers the basics.
Advanced requesters take three additional steps.
First, they indicate whether they fall in the most favorable category for fees.
Reporters and scholars typically qualify for reduced fees. Commercial users pay more.
Others pay somewhere in between. Second, they put a limit on how much they are willing to
pay. No one wants to be surprised with a big bill. Third, they ask for a fee waiver if
disclosure of the information they seek is in the public interest and will contribute to
public understanding of government activities.
Requesters then sit back and wait for days, weeks, months or years for a response. It
all depends on the agency backlog.
Truly advanced FOIA requesters don't follow any of these steps. They don't use FOIA at
all. When looking for information from a federal agency, smart requesters consider FOIA to
be the method of last resort. They make a formal request only when all other avenues have
failed or have been eliminated for good reason. There is nothing terrible about the FOIA,
but it can be slow and ineffective.
The best first step for requesters is to look for alternatives. For those of you on the
receiving end of FOIA requests, alternatives are important as well. It is in everyone's
interest to use efficient and practical ways to meet public demands for information. If
people on both sides think creatively, we will all be better off. Asking some of these
questions will help FOIA recipients and requesters alike:
Who has the information? Government employees are like everyone else. They like to talk
about what they do, and they may provide information if asked politely. Formal FOIA
requests can be a headache for the agency as well as the requester. Smart agency staff
members may want to avoid the extra work. Depending on agency policies, there may be
nothing wrong with helping someone who needs information. Reporters look for such leaks
routinely, but anyone can benefit from a friendly leak.
Is the information already public?
Agencies are required to make some information available to the public without a
request. The new Electronic FOIA requirements covering online information will make this
happen more often. Some interesting agency files are already available via the Internet.
Requesters should always make a quick search first to see if the information is posted
on the agency's World Wide Web site. Agencies must make more documents available
electronically, and this will prevent repeated FOIA requests.
Are there other sources? Shrewd request-ers think about others who seek the same
information they do. An academic group, public interest group or trade association may
already have published the information on the Web or in print. Consider other levels of
government. State, local and even foreign governments sometimes have the information
you're looking for.
Why not simply refer some inquiries elsewhere and save everyone a lot of effort?
There's nothing wrong with that if it heads off a formal request.
Has there been a related Congressional hearing? Transcriptions of hearings often
contain reams of agency documents. Appropriations committee hearings can be treasure
troves of detailed data about agency plans, activities and programs, as can investigative,
oversight and budget hearings.
Can we cooperate? The FOIA is a mechanism for obtaining information, not an end in
itself. If those who have information learn to cooperate with those who want it, everyone
benefits. Requesters have to be flexible and understand what is happening on the agency
end. Agencies have to look at things from the requesters' perspective. Nothing beats a
friendly chat among folks who are trying to work together to solve a joint problem.
If that problem can be solved without the use of the FOIA, so much the better.
Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations Subcommittee on
Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington privacy and
information policy consultant. His e-mail address is email@example.com.