Making “Publicly Available” Records Available

While the hardware we use to print documents may have shrunk, demand certainly hasn’t. (ARC Identifier 536611)
While the hardware we use to print documents may have shrunk, demand certainly hasn’t. (ARC Identifier 536611)

As the government strives to find ways to improve FOIA, proactive disclosure seems to be one strategy that everyone agrees on; if agencies make more information publicly available, people will not need to make FOIA requests for those records.

In many cases, this strategy has worked. Thanks to efforts like and agencies’ FOIA libraries, you can now easily download reams of information that were previously available only through a FOIA request. But what about those for whom the Internet itself is out of reach?

We have heard from a handful of FOIA requesters who have made FOIA requests for records only to be told by the agency that because the records are available on the web, the agency is not required to provide them through FOIA. Unfortunately, even in our connected age, there are individuals who do not have access to the Internet (or access to a public library’s Internet terminals). So how should agencies handle requests from those who are housebound, or incarcerated, or in some other situation that presents them from accessing records that are “freely available” to others?

It is worth noting that agencies have very good reasons for refusing to supply customers with copies of publicly available records, particularly to those who can access the records online. It is costly in terms of time, money and effort. It can also feel like a slippery slope; no agency wants to earn a reputation as a printing press.

We have heard from agencies whose regulations stipulate that they will not fulfill requests for publicly available records. We know that other agencies send copies of records available on the Internet without a second thought when requested by an individual who explains his or her situation. It is interesting to consider the issue in light of the Administration’s emphasis on good customer service.

Agencies, have you received requests like these? How do you handle them? We’d love to hear from you.