Let’s Make It Easier for Requesters to Use the FOIA Process

It should be easy to find an agency's FOIA regulations online. (NARA Identifier 6482991

It should be easy to find an agency’s FOIA regulations online. (NARA Identifier 6482991

Agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations are one of the most important resources available to those requesting information from the federal government. As we’ve mentioned in the past, agency FOIA regulations are essentially the rule book the agency uses to process a request.  And, as anyone who has ever played a new board or card game knows, it is much easier to win when you know the rules of the game.

FOIA regulations touch on a wide variety of topics, some of which the agency must address in the regulation and some of which they may address (see our blog post on the importance of agency FOIA regulations for a full explanation of what is in an agency’s FOIA regulation, and why it matters). All regulations include information essential to a successful FOIA request, including where to send an initial request and the time limit for appealing an adverse determination.

Important though they may be, FOIA regulations are frequently very difficult for requesters to find. Some requesters search for agency FOIA regulations in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, or eCFR. One way to search the eCFR for the applicable regulations is do a simple search for the agency’s name and then click the link to “Refine this search” and narrow the results by adding  “Freedom of Information Act” or “5 USC 552” into the query (5 USC 552 refers to FOIA’s location in the US Code). Requesters can also find links to agency regulations in the eCFR by visiting the results of National Security Archive’s 2013 audit of agency FOIA regulations; please note, however, that the National Security Archive’s table showing when the regulation was last updated might be out of date.

There is a very easy step agencies can take to help requesters better understand the process the agency uses, help make sure requests are routed to the correct office, and make sure requesters are aware of any other requirements under the law: post a link to the agency’s regulation on the agency’s FOIA website. Posting a link to the regulation in the eCFR is a good first step. However, as we noted in our most recent agency assessment report, posting the agency’s regulation as a searchable PDF or in HTML is even more user-friendly.

Do you have any other ideas for simple steps agencies can take to help the public use the FOIA process? Let us know in the comments!

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