COVID-19 and FOIA: Observations and Useful Links

mail carrierThe COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of life in the United States, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process is no exception. We will be sharing information in the coming weeks about how agencies are responding and providing links to resources that we hope will be useful to you. 

Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • With work-from-home orders in place at many agencies nationwide, receiving and sending U.S. mail has become an issue. Generally speaking, agencies are recommending that requesters submit FOIA requests electronically. 
  • An agency’s ability to respond to a particular FOIA request depends on its ability to access and review the responsive records. For this reason, requests for paper-based records and classified records are likely to be delayed.
  • Anticipate delays and be patient. 
  • Recognize that an estimated date of completion (EDC) will be more difficult than ever to determine, but providing EDCs is a great way for agencies and requesters to communicate and set expectations. 

Here are some resources that we at OGIS find useful:

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report showing how federal FOIA programs responded in the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is tracking federal, state and local government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and their effects on access to records as well as information and meetings. Check out RCFP’s “Public Records and Open Meetings Measures Related to COVID-19.” 

RCFP also published resources related to COVID-19 and access to government information, including through FOIA. We particularly like this suggestion (emphasis added): “Mutual communication and flexibility between requesters and responding agencies should be a priority to ensure timely and continued access to government information.”

Interested in musings about FOIA during the pandemic? The staff members of the FOIA Advisor blog posted this commentary. One take-away: “Delays are inevitable.”

Finally, as OGIS communicates with agencies and requesters about their FOIA experiences in these times, we will do our best to keep the FOIA community informed through this blog. (Receive notifications of new posts by typing your email address into the “Follow Blog by Email” in the right hand column.)  Keep in touch–we’re here for you if you would like to share your experiences or brainstorm ideas.