Getting government to respond
Once you’ve filed your request, there are a lot of ways a government agency can respond. The best-case scenario is that a clerk or FOIA coordinator promptly turns over what you’ve requested, or even more. It does happen, but isn’t typical.
Sometimes you’ll get a response that seems like a nasty trick (and it might be) but you’ll typically get your best results if you always assume good faith on the part of the FOIA coordinator, act civilly, and simply move forward through the legal process. As the saying goes, “you catch more flies with sugar.”
The first thing an agency might do is simply not respond, and act like they never saw your request. With local governments, you can avoid this by hand-delivering the request. With distant agencies, you might want to follow up with a phone call. Just give them a friendly reminder that you’ve submitted a lawful request and that you’re expecting a timely response. Do it twice. Sometimes FOIA coordinators have a lot of work and they’ll prioritize the people who make it clear they’re waiting, and not going away.
FOIA law allows for an extension, which in most cases doubles the amount of time they have to respond. For larger requests or busier agencies, you can expect to get a notice that they’re taking that extension.
As a reporter, I always ask for an exemption from the fees agencies charge, because my work is in the interest of the public good. But most of the time, I end up getting a kind of invoice or bill anyway. It says what they have that they can furnish, what they want to charge for it, and should also list any files that they will not furnish and the legal exemptions they claim allow it.
Make sure the exemptions they claim are valid, and part of the law. Some agencies are known to make up exemptions. Also remember that just because part of a document is exempt doesn’t mean the whole document is exempt. They can redact parts of it and furnish you with the rest. Remind the FOIA coordinator of that if it’s what you want.
Then inspect the charges. Simply put, they can charge for the wages for whoever has to pull and review the files, and the cost of making the copies. It always seems like too much.
Getting digital files usually exempts you from having to pay for copies, but wages are often something you’re stuck with. However, there are ways you can narrow what you’re asking for to reduce the work. If you only need information from certain dates, for instance, you can narrow the search for them. Any way you can make the search faster or smaller will reduce the cost.
If the exemptions or the charges seem unreasonable or wrong, and the FOIA coordinator won’t work with you, you can appeal. Appeals work differently under different laws, but in Michigan it’s about as simple as writing another letter, to the head of the agency. If you feel like you need to appeal, I’d recommend enlisting the help of an expert. If you appeal fails and you still want to fight, you can go to court.
If you’d rather not get too legalistic in your quest for information, you can try to get creative, instead. MuckRock suggests trying to find another agency that has the files. Governments are huge bureaucracies with many redundancies, another agency may have a copy of the files you want, and be more willing to release them. If the information you want pertains to you, you may be able to request it under the Privacy Act. If you’re a reporter working with sources, those sources could request information about themselves under the privacy act and share it with you.
Once you have the information, what you do with it is up to you. MuckRock.com and several other websites encourage you to post what you obtain publicly, so others can also review it. Reporters often digest and publish parts of what they obtain in articles or features. Businesses sometimes use government data in their research, or in decision-making processes.
If you need any more guidance, you can get great information from MuckRock.com, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, or by emailing me.
Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.