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View Full Version : Has anyone here had experience with researching under The Freedom of Information Act?



Perks
11-09-2010, 01:13 AM
I'm not looking for sensitive documents, but a character of mine soon will be.

So I'm wondering if any of you have ever attempted to invoke the FOIA to learn about anything and, if so, what was your experience?

veinglory
11-09-2010, 02:17 AM
It is essentially a straightforward bureaucratic process. Depending on the breadth of the request it can take time. FOIA, of course, only gives access to a fairly narrow range of information that is public due to its funding. Mostly equally bureaucratic forms describing projects, research, budgets etc...

Ken
11-09-2010, 02:20 AM
... tried with the sanitation department. Called them up with a question for an article I was working on. Told me they couldn't supply me with the answer and then refered me to the Info Act. Didn't pursue my question further. Too much of a hassle. No reflection on the Act, itself, but more like on myself.

Perks
11-09-2010, 02:29 AM
FOIA, of course, only gives access to a fairly narrow range of information that is public due to its funding. Mostly equally bureaucratic forms describing projects, research, budgets etc...Yeah, this would be just about right. She'll want something with more meat on it, but only get the gristly bone.


Too much of a hassle. No reflection on the Act, itself, but more like on myself.That is pretty much what I thought would happen.

veinglory
11-09-2010, 02:32 AM
If you don't make a letter-perfect request it does tend to bounce back. I have only dealt with it on the sending not receiving side in relation to research. I got told what they asked for, gathered it up and mailed it off after redacting things like peoples phone numbers.

Perks
11-09-2010, 02:33 AM
Perfect, VG, that's helpful. Thank you.

Perks
11-09-2010, 02:34 AM
So wait, under the Act, they get a request, then the gears and cogs who work for the Act tell the people who actually know the stuff the requester is asking to send it on?

Miguelito
11-09-2010, 04:26 AM
I can tell you what it's like to be on the receiving end of such a request (not FOIA, but a law like it): An agency that coordinates these things receives the request and then forwards it to whatever branch of government is being targeted.

That branch of government then identifies staff members who likely have pivotal roles in the material requested (including technical staff who are likely writing the material being requested). Those identified then spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to track down any documents that may fit the profile of the request. The information then has personal information blacked out for privacy rules.

The information then goes back to the organizing agency and then is given to the requester.

Frankly, broad requests are a major pain in the ass to collect (e.g. I want everything that's been written on this topic over the past five years from the such-and-such agency). This can include memos, e-mails, briefing notes, internal notes, presentations etc...

I fully agree that there needs to be the release of government documents for the sake of accountability (they're my tax dollars too), just being the one collecting them sucks when you have many other projects you're supposed to be working on. I'm an analyst, not an archivist, Jim!

Keyan
11-10-2010, 02:08 PM
I've used something like FOIA and a friend has used FOIA on a project we were involved with. With my request, I knew quite precisely what I was seeking: A letter from one government department to another. They first sent me the wrong one, then when I re-requested it, they sent me the correct one. It was all done by email (I received PDF scans of the letters) and took maybe 7-10 days.

My friend was looking for much more information - in the end it was several hundred pages. It took many months, partly because I think there was some internal wrangling before they sent it to him. But it was also emailed, which was good because there's a charge for printing. This way it was free.

Another friend also made a request under a similar law to FOIA, and got incomplete data that resulted in a fairly long correspondence with the sender, which yielded more data and finally the realization that the record-keeping had been pretty bad. (The department concerned *should* have kept complete detailed records in a standard format, but didn't.)

From the outside, my perception is that usually what's being requested has the potential to be used in ongoing battles; and so sometimes the organizations receiving the request try to stall. In the end, they do give the information; both my friends had to follow up and be quite persistent.

I think it helps if you can specify the document you are looking for - I guess it makes it easier for people like Miguelito who actually do the work of digging out the material.

I understand the problems in getting this information, but I think it's just amazing that such a facility exists. It really feels like *this* is democracy.

veinglory
11-10-2010, 07:16 PM
Yes, I didn't mention that there is an office that processes the requests. Also their are watchdog agencies who duplicate requests so they can see what the other isde is getting hold of. When requests are broad you can charge not only for printing but any reasonable costs directly associated with fulfilling the request (like staff time). The request can include any document held by the agency including email archives. Certain information can be redacted for privacy, but people often forget to do this. So the requester may get less, or rather more, than they are looking for.

Perks
11-10-2010, 07:28 PM
I'm an analyst, not an archivist, Jim!Lol! Love it.


Yes, I didn't mention that there is an office that processes the requests. Also their are watchdog agencies who duplicate requests so they can see what the other isde is getting hold of. When requests are broad you can charge not only for printing but any reasonable costs directly associated with fulfilling the request (like staff time). The request can include any document held by the agency including email archives. Certain information can be redacted for privacy, but people often forget to do this. So the requester may get less, or rather more, than they are looking for.

Wonderful info. Again, thanks so much.

Miguelito
11-11-2010, 05:02 AM
From the outside, my perception is that usually what's being requested has the potential to be used in ongoing battles; and so sometimes the organizations receiving the request try to stall. In the end, they do give the information; both my friends had to follow up and be quite persistent.
I don't know what it's like in other places, but in my department, it's taken very seriously. We hand over our material ASAP to the agency coordinating the whole information request. One of our executives will give a speech somewhere, the information request comes in for the speech material the next day, including all drafts of the speech, and then bang, the information goes out.

In Canada, where delays do happen is with the provincial coordinating agencies because there's a huge backlog of requests. These requests are coming at a pace never seen before and staffing of those agencies has remained either the same or has been reduced. In the provincial agencies, it's not unusual for delays to be up to one year. It's unacceptable, frankly, for there to be that kind of delay. But government purses are tight these days, so good luck getting the staffing to clear the backlog.


I think it helps if you can specify the document you are looking for - I guess it makes it easier for people like Miguelito who actually do the work of digging out the material.

I understand the problems in getting this information, but I think it's just amazing that such a facility exists. It really feels like *this* is democracy.Yup. It's really annoying when a request crosses my desk because I'm a pretty busy guy and don't really have the time to spare, but it's essential to transparency of government. I also cringe at the thought of some of my draft material getting quote mined by the press (it's a draft -- not meant for public consumption -- and I'm often very blunt in my analyses and criticisms before they get softened for the final draft).