In theory, the Freedom of Information Act makes it easier for journalists and online publishers to obtain information and data from the federal government.
But obtaining anything from the federal government can quickly turn into a logistical nightmare, including information that is covered under FOIA legislation.
One of the most frustrating parts about requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act is that there is no central agency for FOIA requests. Each federal agency handles its own FOIA requests so you'll need to know which agency has the information you need before you make your request. After that, you'll need to identify the agency's FOIA contact as well as the department within the agency that is most likely to have the data you are requesting.
Finally, you will need to make a formal request for information under the FOIA. Since standardized FOIA request forms don't exist, each information requester is responsible for formatting their own request using the agency's guidelines and the lessons learned by others who have successfully obtained data under FOIA.
- Formal letter. The official FOIA request mechanism is a formal letter addressed to the contact person at the agency from which you are requesting information. This letter must reasonably describe the information you are requesting and be in written form (e.g. letter, fax, email, etc.). The letter must also indicate a willingness on the part of the requester to pay all fees associated with the request as well as the requester's contact information including a mailing address, phone number, and email address.
- Fees. The fees associated with an FOIA request are primarily processing fees related to archive searches, reviews, and duplications. If you are concerned about racking up a big bill, customize the request letter to authorize fees up to a specific amount, but indicate that you would like the agency to contact you before exceeding the authorized amount.
- Response Deadlines. After the agency has received a FOIA request, they have 20 days to determine whether they will release the requested information. In rare instances, federal agencies can extend this time period, but they are required to notify the requester in writing.
- Preventing rejections. All federal agencies release an annual report about their FOIA compliance activities during the year. This report contains information about specific requests and the basis for rejections. Although it isn't required, it's a good idea to review the agency's annual report and reasons why they rejected other requests before you submit your request.