I spend a lot of time on agency websites looking at FOIA information. Lately, I’ve been very disappointed with the content of many of the sites. A well organized website can be a great aid to a FOIA requester. I consider easy access to the site the first priority – it’s a real pain if you have to spend fifteen minutes or more (and I have!) figuring out how to get to an agency’s FOIA page.
Once you get to a website, the most important thing on that site should be the agency’s rules or regulations that are special to that agency. For instance, the State Department requires Privacy Act requests and/or third party authorization to be sent by mail whereas many other Departments will accept them via fax. This is the type of information that should be highlighted.
Another must for an agency website is that, at the very least, the correct address for the agency’s FOIA Office should be posted. It is also helpful to have a phone number, fax number and e-mail address for this office. Some agencies post no contact information on their website. This makes it very difficult for a FOIA requester to actually make a request. Agencies should also make sure that the information they post is correct. I’ve tried to fax request only to find out that the posted fax number is wrong and is in reality and individual residence. E-mail links also routinely get cut, so it is suggested that agencies test their email links form time to time.
While the issue of how agencies receive requests could be the subject of another column, I’ll add a few points here. Many agencies now prefer requests to come to them either electronically or via fax. Agencies should state their preferences on their websites. And along those lines, agencies should acknowledge the requests as soon as possible (one to two weeks is about right), and give the requester a contact person and request number. This acknowledgement will, at the very least, let the requester know that the agency has the request in hand, and allow the requester to follow its process as it snakes thought the bureaucratic process.
Websites are a wonderful FOIA resource. It is hoped that in the future agencies will utilize them and maintain them is a way that truly assists the FOIA requester.
[Editor’s Note: Principal FOIA Contacts at Federal Agencies ]