While we can't guaranteed that you will get every government record you desire, the following tips will help ensure that you take full advantage of the wealth of information available through state and federal freedom of information laws.
- Do some research to identify the agency or agencies that possess the records you seek. A little advanced research can go a long way. Often, the records you are seeking exist in more than one government agency or from both state and federal agencies. Find out where the documents are located and then use this guide to determine from which agency you have the greatest likelihood of getting the records. You should also research who the responsible officials are and where you should address your request(s). If you are looking for records held by the federal government, see the section on Finding and Getting the Federal Records You Seek. If you are interested in state and local government records, see the section on Access to Records from State Governments for guidance.
- Exhaust informal means first. FOIA and its state counterparts are powerful tools for getting government information, but they are not the only means at your disposal to get the information you want. It's quite possible that someone else has already requested the records you seek and made those documents available online. A few well-crafted web searches might turn them up, or they might be available in the relevant agency's [Getting the Records|online reading room] or through one of the government records clearinghouses, such as GovernmentDocs.org and GovernmentAttic.org. If you can't find the information online, a phone call or letter to a sympathetic public official asking for the voluntary release of the information might be all you need.
- Plan your request carefully. Again, it is wise to think about the information you want, when you need it, and how much you are willing to spend to get it. You should also spend some time researching whether any exemptions might apply to the information you are seeking. Most freedom of information requests run into problems because the information contained in the documents is subject to one of the many exemptions available under FOIA and its state FOI counterparts. See the FOIA Exemptions and Access to Records from State Governments sections of this guide for more information. By anticipating these exemptions, you may be able to tailor your request to get around the exemptions or provide reasons why the exemptions should not apply to your request (e.g., public interest, previous release of information to other requesters, inapplicability).
- Send a clear and well written request. If you've done your research, you will know what records to ask for and whom to ask. Take the time to draft a clear description of the records you are requesting. Try and be as specific as possible: include the title and date of each document, the authors, recipients, and other identifying information if you know it. General requests -- such as "all files relating to X subject" -- are unlikely to get you what you want and will often result in delays and additional costs. Be sure and date and sign your request, include a return address, and keep a copy of all correspondence to and from the agency. You should also specify if you want the records released in electronic form or as physical copies.
- Put a limit on the costs you are willing to pay. Under the federal FOIA and most state FOI laws, the responding agency can charge you for certain search and copying fees related to your request. Unless you want to be on the hook for thousands of dollars, you should specify in your request how much you are willing to pay. You should also state that if the fees will exceed that amount, you should be notified by the agency before it begins work on your request. You may be able to avoid some copying costs -- but not the search fees -- if you ask to review the records before the agency makes copies.
- Request a waiver of fees, if appropriate. If you qualify for a waiver of the search, review, or copying fees, ask for a waiver in your request letter and clearly explain why your waiver request is justified under the applicable law. See the section on Costs and Fees under FOIA and Access to Records from State Governments for more information. If appropriate, emphasize that you are seeking the records not solely for a private, profit-making purpose and that you will be using the information to inform the public about the operations and activities of its government.
- Anticipate delays and be patient. Government agencies are generally required to respond to your request within 10 to 20 working days, depending on the relevant FOI law involved. In practice, however, most agencies take much longer to respond, let alone to release records which can sometimes take months or even years. If you haven't received a response to your initial request within the require time period, you should write or call the agency to check the status of your request. While it usually helps to be understanding of their workload (almost all government agencies have FOI backlogs) ask them to commit to a response date and/or a release date for the records and hold them to it.
- Be willing to compromise. You should anticipate that problems will arise. It could be that the agency needs more time to locate and review the records you've requested or that the information is covered by one or more exemptions. When appropriate, offer to revise or narrow the scope of your request to move things along. If you revise your request, however, be sure to make clear that your willingness to compromise is not considered a "new" request by the agency (a new request will start the clock running again). If the agency tells you that the records don't exist, ask them to describe their search methodology. Perhaps they aren't looking for the right things or in the right places. It might also help if you offer to resolve fee or fee waiver issues by paying a small amount.
- File a lawsuit as a last resort. The simplest -- and often most effective -- remedy is to seek informal resolution of any disputes related to your request. A follow-up telephone call or email can sometimes get things back on track. If this fails to pry the records loose, your first recourse should be to use the internal appeal procedures (if they exist) within the relevant agency. See the sections on What Are Your Remedies Under FOIA and Access to Records from State Governments for more information. If your internal appeal is not successful, a lawsuit may be on the only way to get the records. Keep in mind, however, that obtaining records through legal action can be a costly and drawn-out process.