Because we help resolve disputes between agencies and FOIA requesters, we see a broad sample of the kinds of requests that members of the public file with agencies. Seeing this range of requests also gives us a pretty good idea of what strategies seem to work well, and what seem to cause unintended problems.
One practice that seems to complicate requests is for a requester to put a lot of energy into describing why he or she wants the information. One of the bedrock principles of the FOIA is that who you are or what you plan to do with the records is irrelevant – it has no bearing on whether an agency should release records to you (unless, of course, you are asking for your own records). In fact, unless you are asking for fees to be waived or to be categorized as a requester that is charged a minimal amount of fees (representative of the media, educational, or noncommercial scientific institution), or you seek expedited processing of your request, you are not required to tell the agency anything about yourself beyond your contact information.
On the other hand, requesters that provide a great deal of specificity about the information that they want from an agency are generally more successful. Being specific about the information you want can help the agency locate the information; it can also save the agency’s time by not making the agency process records that are not really important to you, and save you, as the requester, the hassle of reading through pages that you do not really want. If you do not know enough about the types of records that the agency keeps, or need some insight into which offices might have records that are of interest to you, try calling the agency’s FOIA Requester Service Center or FOIA Public Liaison before you file your request. You can find contact information on the agency’s FOIA webpage or here on FOIA.gov.
Our basic advice for filing a successful FOIA request can be distilled into a few simple phrases. Here are some basic dos and don’ts for your next request:
- be simple and straightforward;
- be specific and precise; and
- be polite and respectful
- be complicated or convoluted
- be vague and imprecise; and
- be inconsiderate and antagonistic
With these guidelines in mind, you too can file better FOIA requests. If you do have any issues with your request, we are also here to help. You can ask for our assistance by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001. Although you can also usually fax us your request for assistance at 202-741-5769, our fax number is temporarily out of service as we complete our move.
5 thoughts on “Keep It Simple and Specific”
As an appeals processor, I’ve seen requests that tell stories making it difficult to determine what the requester wants. Some requesters have provided unrealistic search parameters expecting that’s enough information to locate responsive records. Thank you for this post. Keeping it simple is best.
I would like to reprint this article in my local paralegal association newsletter, Lex Amicus. How do I go about getting permission to reprint?
Hi, and thank you for your interest in our work! Since there is no copyright on US government works, you do not need permission to republish this entry. We do ask, however, that you give us credit as the source of the information and reproduce it in it’s entirety.
Will do. Thank you!
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