FOIA Friday: 30 federal FOIA requests in 30 days from FOIA Geek
The new weblog FOIA Geek, run by investigative journalist Erin Rosa, launched with a project to submit 30 different FOIA requests to 30 different federal agencies over the span of a month. Along the way, they are sharing a set of secrets and techniques they have used to unearth information from publicly available government databases and use that to craft FOIA requests for further information.
Some of the agencies involved are known for their habits of slow response to requests, so it's quite practical to imagine that tracking 30 requests through the system will take more than 30 days worth of writing, complete with appeals.
Keep a log, search the log
When you have so much in the way of slow-moving requests in flight, it's important to keep close track. Keeping a log of incoming and outgoing correspondence is a big portion of the focus of paper handling.
Not only do you have to keep track, but also you have to be prepared to take advantage of how the agencies you are requesting documents from are also keeping track. See The Art of the Meta-FOIA for techniques that help understand how to produce FOIA requests based on what other organizations are asking for. If you know that another news organization has asked for something interesting, you can use their successful request as a jumping-off point for your own explorations.
Records schedules and FOIA handbooks
Agencies keep records schedules and FOIA handbooks that define what kinds of records they maintain and how access to these records are processed. Some agencies release those documents, and that can speed up your access so that you know the precise form or structure of the information you are looking for.
The Federal Procurement Data Service and the Federal Business Opportunities databases provide information about federal contracts and awards. You can use either of these to locate a contractor doing work of interest, and then request documents related to the contract.
As an example, the FBO database has a VA Hospital solicitation for radio advertising for a campaign for the Ann Arbor VA, looking for an adult contemporary station to run ads with vets reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. A FOIA request could be sent in based on that information to locate all organizations that responded to the solicitation.
A slow, steady grind
Timely responses from some agencies have already been received:
I’m happy to report that the first three FOIAs filed by this blog have all been promptly responded to by the government, so if you want to get an idea of how the entire FOIA process is done, these documents provide a good example of how obtaining federal records works. Provided there are no initial problems with a request, an agency should get back to you (usually in 20 business days after receiving a FOIA) with an acknowledgment that they have received the request, along with a case number, fee information and sometimes a assigned “FOIA Specialist” who will be handling the case.
At a calendar month of turnaround time for an initial reply, this promises to be a slow process. It's always useful to watch how someone who is mindful of the process takes an approach to looking for information through FOIA, especially since it can be a source of bafflement and frustration.
Edward Vielmetti writes the FOIA Friday column for AnnArbor.com.