The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) empowers citizens to hold their government accountable. It’s been on the books since 1967, yet many don’t fully understand—or take advantage of—this remarkable law.
In the internet age, electronic information is at the heart of many governmental disputes. Last year, employees at the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, National Archives, and hundreds of other government agencies executed a record number of requests, and in today’s contentious political climate, FOIA is being used more than ever to shine a light on government action.
In the weeks leading up to Scott Pruitt’s resignation as Director at the EPA, for example, reporters at the New York Times combed through thousands of internal documents, emails, and financial records, all obtained through the FOIA. Using information released in response to several FOIA requests (and using Logikcull to sort and review that data), they were able to expose egregious spending and other ethical violations that might have otherwise gone unchecked—and stop the alleged misuse of government resources, before it got any worse.
But to tap into these heaps of information, electronic and otherwise, you need to know how to file a request and navigate the nine exemptions that can prevent the public release of data. This infographic details the process of filing a request under the Act, as well as what happens once your request is made.
How to File a FOIA Request
The first thing to know before submitting a FOIA request is that the process is slow—and there is no guarantee that the documents you ask for will be released. According to 2017 DOJ data, simple requests take an average of 27 days to process, while complex ones can take up to a year, and only 37 percent of records are actually released in full.
When preparing a request, it is important to do your research. Check the government’s FOIA website to make sure the information you are asking for is not already available. Then, check agency websites to determine which organization is most likely to have the data you want.
Understanding FOIA Exemptions
Most importantly, you want to make sure that the documents that you request do not fall into one of the nine FOIA exemptions—otherwise, your request will be rejected. These exemptions, established in the Act and related regulations, cover:
- Information classified to protect national security
- The internal personnel rules and practices of an agency
- Information prohibited from disclosure by other federal law
- Trade secrets or confidential or privileged commercial or financial information
- Privileged communications, including:
- Deliberative process privilege
- Attorney work-product privilege
- Attorney-client privilege
- Information that invades an individual's personal privacy
- Law enforcement information that:
- Could interfere with enforcement proceedings
- Would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial
- Could invade personal privacy
- Could disclose the identity of a confidential source
- Would disclose techniques and procedures for investigations or prosecutions and risk circumvention of the law
- Could endanger the life or physical safety of any individual
- Information on the supervision of financial institutions
- Geological information on wells. (Yes, wells.)
Submitting Your FOIA Request
When it comes to writing a FOIA request, there is no specific form you need to use. You can send your request via fax, email, or snail mail, or use the online webform, and there are sample FOIA request letters available on the FOIA website, if you need inspiration.
Depending on who you are and where you are requesting from, you can be charged for document search and duplication, but you may be entitled to a fee waiver if the information could help the general public. Make sure to ask for that waiver in the body of your request.
To improve the chance that your request will be successful, follow these tips:
- Make your request substantive. Exceptionally short requests are likely to be rejected.
- Include references. Requests that included links to a website, in order to offer context and clarity, perform significantly better.
- Ask for data. Requests that seek agency “data” are granted 13 percent more often.
And when your request is successful, don’t let yourself get buried by a data dump. Document review tools can help you search through FOIA information quickly and easily, helping you discover the most relevant data instantly.
This post was originally published in August 2015. It has been updated with more information and up-to-date statistics.