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Avoiding Common FOIA Pitfalls

OGIS’s outreach is on a roll! This week OGIS staff presented twice to audiences of FOIA requesters as part of the National Archives’ “Know Your Records” series. This was a great opportunity to hear from those in the field – most of whom are not sophisticated FOIA requesters — about their FOIA concerns.

While this presentation including plenty of basic information about FOIA and OGIS, our discussion focused on what we have observed as the most common problems facing FOIA requesters, and ways to avoid those pitfalls.

While including plenty of basic information about FOIA and OGIS, our discussion focused on the most common problems facing FOIA requesters, and ways to avoid those pitfalls.

 


While the fact that fees and the scope of the request cause problems is a bit of a no-brainer, our audience scratched its collective head at the concept of the “perfected request.” This FOIA term of art refers to the need to consult an agency’s FOIA regulations before filing a request to ensure that the request is proper and ready for agency processing. You can avoid many issues by making sure that you comply with the special rules that may vary by agency.

 


Another important aspect of a successful FOIA request is that of tone; by this we don’t mean saying “please” and “thank you” (though that can’t hurt!), but rather being brief and direct. Many requesters provide too much information in their initial FOIA request letter such as an overabundance of background, multiple appendices and too much context. FOIA processors are incredibly busy people — they appreciate requests that are polite but direct. One good way to write such a request is to use the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ FOIA letter generator. OGIS also has identified best practices for filing a FOIA request and makes those available.

We are sorry that all of our FOIA Ombudsman readers couldn’t join us for these presentations, but we hope that this has given you a taste of what we presented. We hope to see you at a future presentation!