FOIA Communication: Keep it Simple!

Dr. Edwin McMillan with mousetrap cigarette lighter atom smasher apparatus (Rube Goldberg inspired). Photograph taken March 21, 1974. XBB743-1774. [Photograph by: Steve Gerber] National Archives Identifier 39146966

Plain language has long been an interest of ours as we have observed that clear, concise and well-organized correspondence smoothes the FOIA process for all. After we put plain language on our 2022 holiday wish list, we’re pleased that the Center for Plain Language included FOIA webpages in its 11th annual Report Card on how well agencies follow the 2010 Plain Writing Act

The nonprofit group graded the “contact us” and main FOIA request pages for 21 agencies, including all 15 Cabinet-level departments.

As the Center for Plain Language notes in its key findings: “One third of agencies saw an improvement in their overall writing grade […] On the FOIA request pages, the average writing grade was a C-, which represents a slight decrease from last year’s average writing grade of C+. […] Several judges noted agencies’ use of extraneous information and legal language on FOIA request pages. To fix this, agencies need to lay out a clear path for making a FOIA request, and cut out jargon and acronyms.”

The Center’s report complements OGIS’s recent issue assessment on Agency FOIA Websites, in which we reviewed FOIA websites for all 15 Cabinet-level departments and their components as well as six independent agencies. Our assessment did not assign grades to individual agencies, but rather surveyed general strengths and weaknesses across the federal government with a focus on the presence or absence of 25 criteria that reflect OIP guidance and FOIA Advisory Committee best practices for FOIA websites. 

Plain language maximizes the effectiveness of a FOIA program. Two key items to remember:

  • Break down complex ideas into simple terms, use examples, and avoid legal jargon.
  • Provide clear, step-by-step instructions so beginners can follow along and complete a  request without having to seek clarification from the agency.