What is FOIA?
Since 1967, FOIA has helped the public get a window into the inner workings of the bureaucracy. It provides an opportunity to access government information. However, each presidential administration interprets the law in a more narrow or broad scope. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law in the United States granting public access to government agencies’ information. If a written request is made, US government agencies have to release the information, as long as it doesn’t fall under the exemption listed in the Act. All the government agencies, including executive branch departments, federal corporations, and federal regulatory agencies, are subject to the FOIA. However, this act isn’t applicable to federal courts, Congress, and part of the President’s executive office that assists and advises the President.
Anyone can request information that was either created or obtained by a government agency, including US citizens, organizations, universities, and foreign nationals. This information can be documents, electronic records, emails, maps, videos, and photographs. Apart from releasing information, these agencies are also required to public instructions on making a FOIA request. They must also publish certain information that affects the public, such as policy statements, regulations, staff instructions, and information that is frequently requested by the public. So, before you make a FOIA request, you have to check if the information you want is publicly available.
What is a FOIA Request?
In case the information you want isn’t available anywhere, you can submit the request to the FOIA office of the agency. But, the important question here is how to file a FOIA request? You have to submit the request in writing and describe the records that you want. Most government agencies accept electronic FOIA requests, including emails or web forms. However, the way each agency responds to the request is different. And, if you wish to get the quickest possible response, you should address the request directly to the agency’s FOIA office.
Now, you might be wondering how long does a FOIA request take to process? The time taken to respond to your FOIA request will depend on how complex your request is and the number of pending requests at the agency. Your request will fall into one of the following categories:
A Simple Request
This is a targeted request that seeks fewer pages or records and thus, can be processed faster.
A Complex Request
This type of request requires seeking a high volume of records or additional steps, such as involving multiple departments and locations.
In order to ensure that these time-consuming and complicated requests are handled in an easier, faster, and more effective manner, federal agencies use FOIA software solutions. With these solutions, federal agencies can increase performance standards, predetermine workflows, and have access to advanced search capability.
What are FOIA Exemptions and Exclusions?
FOIA isn’t applicable to all records. Nine exemptions were established by Congress to protect certain categories of information against harm, such as harm to law enforcement investigation or invasion of personal privacy. Agencies can withhold information if they foresee disclosing that information that would harm an interest protected by one of the FOIA exemptions. So, for those wondering what are the 9 exemptions to an FOIA request, here is the answer:
Exemption 1: Classified information that protects national security.
Exemption 2: Information related to internal practices of an agency and personnel rules.
Exemption 3: Information prohibited from disclosure by federal law.
Exemption 4: Privileged or confidential financial or commercial information and trade secrets.
Exemption 5: Privileged inter and intra-agencies communications, including the ones protected by:
- Attorney-client privilege
- Attorney-work product privilege
- Deliberative process privilege (for the records that were created less than 25 years before the requested date)
Exemption 6: Information that invades the personal privacy of another individual.
Exemption 7: Information compiled for law enforcement that:
- Could interfere with enforcement proceedings
- Deprive a person’s right to an impartial adjudication or a fair trial
- Constitutes an unwarranted invasion of someone’s privacy
- Discloses a confidential source’s identity
- Discloses procedures and techniques for law enforcement prosecutions or guidelines for the same
- Endangers the physical safety or life of an individual
Exemption 8: Information concerning the supervision of financial institutions.
Exemption 9: Geological information about wells.
Apart from the exemptions mentioned above, there are special protections in the FOIA for three categories of national security and law enforcement record. Known as exclusions, these provisions protect these records.
Exclusion 1: Protects information pertaining to an ongoing criminal investigation when the subject is unaware of the investigation and disclosure would interfere with the enforcement proceedings.
Exclusion 2: Protects information about an informant in investigations where their status hasn’t been confirmed officially.
Exclusion 3: Limited to FBI and protects foreign intelligence or international terrorism record.
Records that fall within any of the above-mentioned exclusions are not subjected to FOIA requirements. So, if you make a request to an agency, its response will only encompass the records that are subjected to the FOIA.
How to Respond to a FOIA Request?
Usually, FOIA is subjected to public authorities. However, in practice, it can affect private sector business as well, especially if they work for public authority. In case your business falls under this category, the FOIA is applicable to information you hold, and you should know how to respond to a FOIA request.
Processing a FOIA request is not a single-step process as it includes different people, agencies, departments, and legal institutions. There are several FOIA officers involved in the process, including the following:
- FOIA Contacts
- Professionals who search and process the record
- Public Liaisons who work with the requester and resolve concerns
- Chief FOIA officers who supervise the agency’s compliance with the FOIA
Once the agency has received the FOIA request, they send a letter of acknowledgment to the requester that contains an assigned tracking number. In case they need additional information, they contact the requester for the same.
The first step of processing the FOIA request is searching. It might seem like a simple process to an outsider. However, the truth is that the process involves many employees, offices, departments, and legal bodies. The officials review the record to determine what can be released. Any information protected under the FOIA exemptions has to be withheld or redacted. Only after this can a written response be sent to the requester. If the releasable documents have withheld information, the agency has to mention the applicable FOIA exemption.
FOIA Request Management Software: The Solution to Your Problem
In order to deal with FOIA requests, agencies have to disclose records and produce detailed reports explaining that they have complied with the request. However, managing these requests can become a time-consuming endeavor. Thankfully, FOIA Request Management software can help ease the process. It can simplify every step of the FOIA request for the requesting party and the agency and streamline the submission of compliance reports.
For the public, the software offers a web-based, user-friendly portal that makes requests submission easier. The agency can create a template for generating response letters acknowledging the request and keeping the requester apprised of the status of the request. At the same time, the solution allows the officials to easily manage the FOIA requests through the following features:
Assigning and tracking incoming requests
Managing processing times
Delivering requested documentations
Identifying information that has already been delivered
Receiving and processing times
Reducing the cost of processing request
With Casepoint’s FOIA solution, you will be able to respond to FOIA requests easily and efficiently. This simple and secure platform allows you to gather, review, redact and produce requested documents while saving time and resources. The FedRAMP Authorized cloud centralizes data and facilitates secure collaboration with role-based security. You will be able to review and process over 600 data types quickly. Casepoint’s easy-to-use technology and advanced analytics is the perfect solution for managing FOIA requests.
Using eDiscovery Software to Respond to a FOIA Request
The practices and standards that govern the eDiscovery process can be associated with the FOIA request processing as well. eDiscovery covers all the electronically stored information, which can be requested by FOIA. From request submission to delivery, FOIA is similar to e-Discovery, and FOIA coordinators often deal with the same issues as the private litigators. Both these processes involve:
- Centralizing and standardizing huge volumes of electronic data
- Locating information pertaining to a specific issue
- Reviewing and identifying records while avoiding disclosing certain information
- Producing responsive information within the given deadline
When a federal agency receives a FOIA request, it is handled by its FOIA coordinator. They have 20 business days to send a response to the requester. However, given the large volume of data these agencies deal with, a timely response can be challenging. The same goes with eDiscovery as well. The FOIA coordinator reviews the request and determines its scope. In case the response requires processing a large volume of data, they will narrow down the scope of the request.
From data range to search terms, the number of custodians, and production, FOIA covers all the best practices of eDiscovery. By following the same standard, agencies can increase their efficiency and control costs. However, unlike civil requests, a FOIA request cannot be denied. But, the operational similarity between the two cannot be denied. In fact, by integrating eDiscovery as part of the FOIA request processing, agencies can increase their productivity and efficiency.
Although the search obligations under FOIA aren’t the same as the ones under eDiscovery, both need to access ESI. And this is where eDiscovery software can help agencies process FOIA requests. Agencies need IT professionals to conduct eDiscovery for producing records that are requested under the FOIA.
Processing FOIA requests involve searching, reviewing, and redacting documents that contain confidential information. This means that FOIA coordinators have to search a vast amount of documents, which can impose high operational and financial costs. This expensive and time-consuming process can result in backlogs and delays. A manual review of all the documents is no longer an option. What agencies need is a solid eDiscovery software like Casepoint that can lighten the burden. Casepoint can help agencies locate and gather potentially responsive ESI and subject this information to keyword searching, deduplication, data restriction, etc. The software can search through information, including structured as well as unstructured data, and analyze content effectively.
The CaseAssist feature of Casepoint’s eDiscovery software can help agencies find key documents by searching for specific terms, individuals, dates, and essential information and build “stories” from gathered data. CaseAssist Active Learning enables the software to learn from your input and predict and rank unreviewed documents. Agencies will also receive ongoing documents recommendations that are similar to the ones you have already identified as relevant to the request. Its integrated dynamic batch solution enables you to review automation and review prioritization. Most importantly, their tech experts can help agencies with their customized setup and provide ongoing support.
The analytics feature offered by eDiscovery software can benefit FOIA agencies in a multitude of ways. Turning away from manual review and welcoming the use of technology can increase the accuracy and efficiency of responses to FOIA requests. All in all, an eDiscovery solution is something that every federal agency needs to deal with FOIA requests. It will help them save time, money, and effort while minimizing the risks that come with handling sensitive data.