Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)

Agency Best Practices: FOIA and Database Requests

  • Learn which databases your agency has and the types of information those databases contain. When a request comes in, you’ll be one step ahead – and you’ll have an IT contact in hand.
  • Be ready to explain to your agency’s IT professionals, both staff and contractors, their role in the FOIA search process and that FOIA is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Involve the requester early on, particularly if the requester is a database expert. Many are willing to share their knowledge with agencies to help move the FOIA process forward. Take them up on any offers to share their expertise. And consider allowing them to talk directly with the IT staff to discuss the best approaches for responding.
  • If your agency IT professionals tell you something you don’t understand, ask them to explain it to you in plain language. Keep asking until you understand.
  • FOIA professionals don’t need to become IT experts and vice-versa. But speaking the same language can help enormously in understanding another party’s interests. As tempting as it might be to refer to (b)(3)s, exclusions and other FOIA jargon, don’t. And don’t let IT professionals toss around terms you don’t understand.
  • Consider scheduling a conference call with all the players in your agency who have a role in the search or who could better inform the search. Don’t forget IT professionals, records managers, privacy professionals and attorneys.
  • If your agency’s IT professionals say that a search would be unreasonably burdensome, ask them to explain exactly how such a search would hamper the agency’s work. FOIA requires agencies to make reasonable efforts to search for requested records in electronic form or format “except when such efforts would significantly interfere with the operation of the agency’s automated information system.” (Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, p. 78.)