Making a FOIA request may seem intimidating at first–after all, there is a certain format to be followed when requesting records from the government–but trust us, it’s not nearly as complicated as it may seem. Just follow our simple guide (and adapt our sample letter if necessary), and you’ll soon find yourself the master of transparency.
1.) Do Your Research First. Make sure that what you’re asking for isn’t something already available publicly, and know enough about the subject to be able to make a detailed, specific request.
2.) Write the Request Clearly and with Detail. The more broad or general your wording, the more likely that an agency won’t be able to respond to your FOIA request. Make sure to use specific terms, names, and keywords to help guide the FOIA officer in the search. And avoid the temptation to pour out the story of your search in the letter–long narratives tend to confuse the FOIA officer and dilute the search. (Go here to see a sample FOIA letter.)
3.) Be Sure to Send the Request to the Proper Agency. A big part of the delay in FOIA request comes from searches that have been misdirected. You can streamline your response by being certain that you are sending your request to the proper agency. Here, agency websites are an invaluable source of help. Every agency will have a web page with information for FOIA requesters, including the proper address to which to send a request and any agency-specific guidelines for the request. Often, a large agency (like the FBI or the military) will maintain FOIA offices in different components. It’s a good idea to call ahead to the main branch to get more specific information about which FOIA office would be the best fit for your request. Trust me, this can save you weeks and weeks of time in referrals.
4.) Read the Fine Print. Pay attention to the details you get in response letters–from possible contact information to the agency rules on appealing FOIA denials. Following the instructions you’re sent (while tedious) will smooth the way to getting an effective response.
5.) Stay Calm. There will be delays. (Usually.) Depending on what agency you’ve sent your request to, there may be a considerable back-up of requests and searches. If your request includes documents from more than one agency, it will take even longer. And while you may not appeal a lack of response for 20 business days, there are provisions that allow the agency to extend the response time as well as a further 20 day period for them to consider your appeal before you can file a complaint in court. You may also get a notification that your search will include costs (which can rise considerably, based on the number and length of the documents involved) that must be paid for the request to be completed. In short, there are any number of things that can delay a response to your request. Sending multiple frivolous requests, appeals, or calls to the FOIA officer in charge of your search will not speed things along, and may just serve to further slow down the response to your inquiry.