Here at OGIS, we love good record keeping practices. Not only are we housed within the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA), which has responsibility for setting the federal government’s record keeping policies, we also know that strong agency record keeping is the backbone of a good Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office. If an agency is not keeping good records, it is considerably harder—if not impossible—to locate records that are responsive to a request.
Record keeping is not just important for agencies; it can be critical for FOIA requesters. Here are a couple of tips for navigating the FOIA process as smoothly and efficiently as possible:
Keep track of your tracking numbers. FOIA requires agencies to provide requesters with a tracking number for each request that will take longer than 10 days to process. Requesters should be able to use this number to find the status of their request online or on the telephone. Having a system to track your tracking numbers is particularly important if you have a number of outstanding requests because it will help make sure that the agency can quickly check the status of your request and minimizes any confusion about which request you are calling or emailing about.
Choose the tracking method that works best for you. Like handwritten lists? Go for it. Prefer using a spreadsheet that allows you to sort and search? Great. A number of private services also store information about FOIA requests, sometimes for a fee. Whichever method you choose, be sure to include a couple of key pieces of information along with the tracking number, including the subject of the request, the agency processing the request, and the date you sent your request.
Document your initial request and appeal. It’s important to have proof that you sent a FOIA request or an appeal on a particular date in the event that machines malfunction or humans make mistakes. FOIA requests generally are processed on a first in, first out basis. The date of your initial request determines where your request is placed in the agency’s queue. If an agency loses your initial request and you can show when it was sent, the agency might be willing to put your request in the place it would have been in the line if it had been logged in appropriately. For appeals, the date is important because many agencies require that appeals be made within a certain time frame. (Appeal times vary by agency and generally run 30, 45 or 60 days, although they range from 10 days to no time limit.) Some agencies may consider appeals that are filed late, but some will not.
If your request is printed (because you are mailing or faxing it) or you are sending it as an email attachment, remember to include the date on the upper right-hand corner. An easy and cost-effective method to document submission of your initial request is saving the record that the request was sent, whether via email, fax, or registered mail.
Following these easy steps helps you protect your rights under the FOIA, and helps make sure the process is as painless as possible for both the requester and the agency.
FOIA requesters, how do you keep track of your requests? Agency FOIA folks, what record keeping best practices have you observed among your requesters? Please share in the comments.