In the fiscal year 2020, federal agencies received a total of 790,772 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. There are also tens of thousands of state and local agencies taking in and processing public record requests on a daily basis. Since most agencies keep a log of requests received, FOIA-minded reporters can find interesting story ideas by asking for and digging through the history of what other people are looking to obtain.
Some FOIA logs are posted on the websites of agencies that proactively release these records. Those that are not can be obtained through a FOIA request. There are a number of online resources that collect and store these documents, including MuckRock, the Black Vault, Government Attic and FOIA Land.
Sorting through a FOIA log can be challenging since format differs from agency to agency. A more well-maintained log might include comprehensive information on the names of the requesters, the records being asked for, the dates of the requests’ receipt and the agency’s responses, as shown, for example, in a log released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency.
But other departments –– the Cook County Department of Public Health, for instance –– might only send over a three-column spreadsheet with no descriptions of the nature of the requests.
As a result, learning how to negotiate with agencies and interpreting the content in their FOIA logs are crucial for journalists trying to understand the public record landscape. While some reporters only use FOIA logs to keep tabs on their competitors’ reporting interests, the potential of these documents goes far beyond this. Below are some tips for getting story inspiration from FOIA logs.
Identify readily available records
Reading through a FOIA log allows reporters to spot readily available records that an agency previously released to others. Since the agency has already gone through the process of searching for, copying and redacting the records in question, it will likely send you the same documents in a timely manner without much fuss.
It is especially useful to look at requests filed by news media, which accounts for approximately 7.6 percent of all requests. Compared to commercial requesters, who tend to focus on a narrow subject of interest, media organizations are more likely to inquire into more general matters that can be turned into news stories. For example, you could refer to the below request by The Washington Post –– taken from a FOIA log from the U.S. Department of Education and granted in full in the past –– to request records on alleged sex discrimination in K-12 schools’ athletic programs.
Use administrative processing notes to tell transparency stories
Looking at the release history is not the only way to make use of a FOIA log. Analyzing past denials can shed light on the inner workings of a governmental department’s FOIA processing mechanism. If you observe a pattern of denials by a particular agency or have questions about its responses to specific entries, you could request the administrative processing records –– notes, emails and memos –– associated with the denied requests to learn about the behind-the-scenes communication among its staff members.
If the processing notes, for example, reveal that an agency has a habit of rejecting FOIA requests based on hypertechnical interpretations of the request language, then you could tell a story about how such a practice undermines FOIA’s promise of governmental transparency. After all, a FOIA-inspired story should point to not only what the government releases but also what it refuses to give out.
Always push for more details
If an agency only gives you a largely undecipherable FOIA log with no information on the requesters or the nature of the requests, you could circumvent the issue by asking instead for a copy of all the FOIA request letters it received and response letters it sent out.
Furthermore, a number of agencies utilize computer software to keep track of their request history for internal use and, upon request, might generate a form with only selective information. You could check the software’s capabilities and request they release a standard report that is more useful for getting the complete picture.
Track business activities through commercial requests
The biggest demand for FOIA comes from commercial enterprises, which produce about 55 percent of all federal requests. Business reporters could, therefore, use various departments’ FOIA logs to keep an eye on the companies that are of interest to them. For instance, if you see a real estate company repeatedly asking about certain types of properties or a major corporation inquiring into areas of businesses beyond their current operations, then you may be the first to learn of these firms’ new business strategies.
Ask for the “10 oldest requests and 10 oldest appeals”
Besides asking for a complete FOIA log, another way for reporters to investigate an agency’s FOIA work is to request its 10 oldest pending requests and 10 oldest pending administrative appeals.
The National Security Archive, a non-profit research facility associated with the George Washington University, created a “Ten Oldest FOIA Request” metric in 2003 to show the sheer number of unfulfilled requests still held by various agencies. According to its survey, the agencies with the oldest pending requests are often those with the biggest FOIA backlogs.
With these lists, reporters can discover what records an agency has had the most difficulties completing or is most reluctant to give out.
Photo by Melissa Lindberg via the Library of Congress.