How to Handle Requests About Previous FOIA Requests

office wall of filing cabinet with open card catalog and flying documents

Hold on folks, we’re about to get meta!

If you’ve been dealing with public records requests for a long time, you have probably received one of the stranger requests out there: a FOIA request for information about previous FOIA requests.

Handling requests for previous FOIA submissions presents unique challenges. They’re often about topics that are contentious to begin with. That means that compliance is a huge concern so you don’t open yourself up to further scrutiny or even litigation.

Depending on the scope of the request, they can also be incredibly time-consuming. You need to balance efficiency with accurate and complete information for compliance purposes, as well as take privacy and confidentiality concerns into account.

In this article, you will learn:

  • Types of meta-FOIA requests and the scope of each
  • How to narrow the scope of a meta-FOIA request
  • Reasons why people request previous FOIA submissions
  • Strategies for compiling and disclosing past FOIA request information
  • The role of technology in the response to these requests

By understanding and implementing the strategies outlined in this article, government agencies can improve your response process to FOIA requests—enhancing public trust and accountability. Let’s delve into the intricacies of handling requests for previous FOIA submissions and explore practical solutions to the challenges they present.

Narrowing the Scope of Requests About Past Requests

Requests about previous FOIA submissions can be vast, requiring many hours of work for your staff. But determining exactly what your requester is looking for can help narrow the scope.

Make a phone call or send an email to find out whether they want:

  • Information on both on the request itself (what the requester asked) and the responsive documents of past requests
  • Data about the administrative process behind requests—documentation, communications, and internal discussions related to those FOIA processes
  • FOIA logs, or a simple index of FOIA requests received by the agency
  • Requests on a particular subject matter, by a certain requester, or within a certain time frame

But it’s still possible that it’s going to be a bear of a request even once you’ve found out this information. On the NAGARA CommunityChat forum, Records Analyst Tammy Mueller recommended explaining to the requester the likely volume of data they’re looking at, what fees may be assessed, and how long it may take to fill the request.

This helps set the requester’s expectations and potentially encourages them to narrow their requirements further.

Tammy adds, “Another option for reducing costs if they’re interested in receiving all records related to all requests might be to export a report of all the requests and offer to have them review it and let you know if there’s any they’re not interested in.”

Why Do People Request Previous FOIA Requests?

Requesters typically are not required to explain why they’re making an information request. But by asking clarifying questions and understanding the underlying motivation, you can ensure that your responses are both helpful and appropriate—and that you’re not wasting your time on details they don’t actually want.

Motivations may include:

  • Journalistic Investigations: Journalists may submit requests for information about past FOIA requests as part of investigative reporting. They may be uncovering potential patterns of government behavior, trying to expose instances of misconduct or inefficiency, or shedding light on matters of public interest.
  • Academic Research: Researchers may seek information about past FOIA requests to analyze government practices, policies, or trends. Their research may aim to contribute to scholarly discourse, inform policymaking, or uncover insights into governmental operations.
  • Citizen Oversight: Concerned citizens may submit requests for information about past FOIA requests as part of efforts to monitor and oversee agency activities. They may seek to hold government agencies accountable, ensure transparency in decision-making processes, or simply decide who they want to vote for.
  • Learning to Create Better Requests: Individuals and organizations looking to submit their own FOIA requests may seek information on past submissions to understand how to word requests and what types of requests are more likely to be successful.

Recognizing the requester’s intent can influence how you compile and present information. For instance, an academic researcher might require more comprehensive data sets and contextual information, while a journalist might be looking for specific documents that shed light on a newsworthy issue. The more you know, the better you can provide a timely and helpful response.

Addressing Privacy and Confidentiality Concerns

It’s important to address privacy and confidentiality concerns when compiling and disclosing information about past FOIA requests.

If the request is for all responsive documents, the records should be re-reviewed prior to release. Double-checking the documents ensures that you catch any errors in the original responsive documents before you re-release them.

 Furthermore, as Tammy explains, “Some exemptions depend on who someone is and their relationship to the records and content in the records.” 

Other details about the request may not be public record, either. For instance, the name of the original requester is public record in some states, but not in others. In Florida, the even requester’s email address (if provided) is considered public record under the Florida Sunshine Law. You will need to research your state’s laws to find out whether you should release the name of the original requester in a request for previous FOIA submissions.

Best Practices for Responding to Requests About Previous FOIA Submissions

  • Standardize Procedures. Agencies should develop standardized procedures for retrieving and organizing past request data. This may include creating templates or checklists to ensure consistency and accuracy in data collection. By establishing clear protocols, agencies can streamline the compilation process and minimize the risk of errors or omissions that leave you open to scrutiny.
  • Leverage Expertise and Collaboration. Efficiently compiling information about past FOIA submissions often requires the collaboration of multiple departments within an agency. Leveraging the expertise of various teams, from legal advisors to information technology specialists, can provide a comprehensive approach to identifying, retrieving, and compiling the necessary information. Encouraging a culture of collaboration and open communication among different departments can further enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the FOIA response process.
  • Use a Centralized Data Repository. It’s essential for agencies to maintain a centralized repository of past FOIA request data. This repository should be easily accessible to authorized personnel and contain comprehensive records of all past requests, including relevant details such as request dates, subjects, outcomes, and any associated correspondence. A centralized data repository facilitates efficient data retrieval and compilation, allowing you to respond promptly to requests for information. Inconsistent or incomplete data may make it appear that your organization is holding back information, even if you’re not!
  • Pause Auto-Delete. Many organizations have their records request system or document repository set to automatically delete requests according to their state’s retention policies. Be sure to turn this feature off while working on a request for previous FOIA submissions. Otherwise, you may lose access to requests you need to release.
  • Ensure Accuracy and Compliance. Agencies should implement a verification process where compiled information is checked against original documents and databases. This step ensures that the data provided in response to requests is accurate and reflects the actual content and outcomes of past FOIA submissions.

Using Technology to Streamline Requests for Previous FOIA Submissions

Adopting a records request software can significantly improve efficiency, accuracy, and the overall user experience of fulfilling “meta” FOIA requests. Given the unique challenges associated with these types of requests—such as identifying relevant previous submissions, tracking their outcomes, and ensuring privacy and confidentiality—technology offers tailored solutions to meet these demands.

  • Archive of Past Requests. A records request solution can function as a database for past FOIA submissions. You’ll be able to find detailed metadata about each submission, such as the date of the request, nature of the inquiry, documents provided, and any redactions made. By implementing advanced search functions, you can quickly identify and access relevant past submissions in response to new inquiries. Some solutions, such as JustFOIA, allow you to export relevant data about requests into a spreadsheet that can be released to the requester.
  • Proactively Releasing Records. Your records request solution can be configured to allow the public to search through other FOIA requests that you publish in a public portal. This means that they may not need to make a new request at all—saving your team the many hours it might take to fulfill a meta-request.
  • Automated Correspondence. Automated systems for updating requesters on the status of their inquiries about past submissions can enhance communication and transparency. These systems can notify requesters when their request has been received, when it is being processed, and when the information is available, including any delays or need for additional information. This continuous line of communication keeps requesters informed and engaged throughout the process.

Special thank you to Tammy Mueller.

Through understanding requester motivations and tackling challenges with innovative solutions, you can significantly enhance the FOIA process.

As the landscape of FOIA request handling continues to evolve, embracing cutting-edge technologies and methodologies will be key to fostering greater transparency and building public trust.

JustFOIA’s expertise and solutions can help you navigate the complexities of FOIA requests efficiently and effectively. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your commitment to transparency and innovation.