The media and the government have historically been locked in a struggle over the availability of government information for public consumption.
The press has argued that the public has a right to know about the actions and decisions made by its government while government agencies have argued that in many cases, the sensitivity of government data far outweighs the public's right to know.
In an effort to make government information more widely available to the media and the public, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. This act (along with its amendments in 1996, 2002, and 2007) makes it possible for individuals to request specific information from government agencies.
However, the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act don't guarantee the release of any and all government data. In fact, FOIA exemptions and the request process itself can make it difficult for online publishers to obtain the information they need. Here's what you're up against . . .
Freedom of Information Act Overview
The Freedom of Information Act applies to all federal departments and agencies, but it isn't applicable to Congress, the courts or the President. There are no restrictions regarding who can or can't apply for information under FOIA – any citizen, anywhere, and for any reason can request information to be released under the FOIA provisions – and unless the information is protected by an exemption, the government is required to release it.
How to Get Government Data via FOIA
- Identify the agency. The first step in obtaining information under FOIA is to identify the agency that most likely has the information you are looking for. There is no central agency or distribution center for FOIA information; each agency or department is responsible for administering its own FOIA requests and information releases. If you have a question about the process, the DOJ (Department of Justice) maintains a database of information about FOIA processes and procedures.
- Search for currently available information. After you have identified the proper department or agency, the next step is to perform a search to discover whether or not the information you need has already been made public. Check each agency's website and reading room to learn whether similar information has been released.
- Submit formal request. Requests for information under FOIA must be made in writing, through the submission of a letter to the appropriate agency contact. Although there are no standard forms, letter templates are widely available online.