How to Make a FOIA Request

It’s Sunshine Week, that time each year when media outlets through the country remind their audiences of the importance of open government. (The Daily Progress editorialized on the topic on Tuesday.) I’d like to take this opportunity to get one simple message across about open government, and that’s this: All you have to do to find out something about government is ask.

Although it is a convenient shorthand phrase, there really is no such thing as “making a FOIA request.” Sure, Virginia has a Freedom of Information Act (here’s a detailed explanation of how it works), but it’s so simple that you don’t really need to know much about it. It says, simply, that when you ask a local or state unit of government for information, they’re obliged to provide it to you promptly. You don’t have to say “I’m filing a request under FOIA.” You don’t have to explain why you want it. You just have to ask. If you want the minutes from a committee meeting, if you want to know how much money was spent on a traffic improvement, if you want to know who got the contract to install new computers, you just have to ask. They have the right to tell you that your request is going to cost money—they can charge the actual cost associated with them providing that information. It’s best to submit requests in writing (e-mail is fine), so that you have a written record of the request. There are a whole mess of exemptions to FOIA: personnel records, administrative investigations, and security records, among others, but the government will be happy to inform you if your question can’t be answered.

I’ve submitted many requests to the city and the county over the past decade, and they’ve always been answered completely and promptly. The few that I’ve submitted to the state have likewise worked out just fine.

Still feeling nervous at the prospect of making a FOIA request? Check out these simple how-to videos about making a FOIA request in Virginia.

18 Responses to “How to Make a FOIA Request”


  • Formercvilleresident

    hey waldo i made a FOIA request here in lynchburg! i know they can’t say no. if they did they be in hot water.

  • Good luck actually getting all the documents that you should from the city. Dave Norris and others use gmail for conducting city business, which make it very easy for them to hide things that they don’t want to reveal.

    I know for a fact that in at least two instances where I have asked for documents that documents that should have been handed over were not.

    I know that because in both cases I went and spoke to someone in person who showed me something that supposedly didn’t exist before. Both of those conversations led me to believe that there was even more that I wasn’t being shown that also should have been released in response to a request for documents.

  • Thanks for illuminating this. It really is an amazing tool for citizens and I personally have been the happy recipient of several of Waldo’s searches. EVERYONE should know how to do it (it really is easy) and exercise that right as often as possible.

  • Ditto what JMRL Fan said. Regarding the cost, can they only charge you the cost associated with copying the documents? Or can you also be charged the cost of paying employees? I could see that being used as a way to dodge requests and bully the little guy.

  • Regarding the cost, can they only charge you the cost associated with copying the documents? Or can you also be charged the cost of paying employees? I could see that being used as a way to dodge requests and bully the little guy.

    The cost can include staff time, although it can’t include overhead costs (such as electricity usage, computing time, etc.)

    I appreciate your concern that charging for staff time could be abused, I’ve had it benefit me. When I created Richmond Sunlight, I asked the Division of Legislative Automated Systems (basically the General Assembly’s IT team) for a copy of the voting record of every member of the General Assembly, and said that I intended to file another request every day for that day’s vote. They were happy to write some software that would output the vote as a CSV file (basically a spreadsheet) for me to download daily. There were no hard costs associated with that, but it did require some hours of staff time to write the program to do that. The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy footed the bill for that, which I think came to a couple of thousand dollars, if I remember correctly.

    A few more requests like the one I made could have tied up DLAS for weeks, and if they didn’t have the ability to recover for the cost of staff time, I think that would quickly make FOIA a real problem. FWIW, that’s the only time I’ve ever been asked to pay anything for a FOIA request, although it’s surely the most complicated request I’ve ever made.

  • But, Waldo, that then begs the question: what are we all paying for FOIA? If you’re not being charged, then we (the taxpayers) are.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t, I’m simply inquiring about costs: and I’m aware that even asking about the cost will cost us more. While someone, you know, stops doing their regular work and figures that out.

    Rather the like the increasing Catch-22 with our school systems and the proliferation of the dreaded “Central Office Staff”. A profound amount of money is spent there complying with both the Federal and the Commonwealth governments so that the school system receives money from them. Plus people there applying for grants from many governmental and non-governmental sources and maybe getting them. I seem to recall a paradigm with the city school system whereby someone doing nothing but finding grants (governmental and non) and applying for them could be paid $90,000 and still be profitable for the school system. As far as more money for “stuff” is concerned. Most grants have a line item for “administration” that would cover the salary, etc.

    My point is that governmental sunshine costs something, either directly or not. Perhaps an indiscriminate call to ‘make a FOIA request’ isn’t efficient of either an individual’s or a government’s time and money.

    Don’t get me started on bureaucratic inefficiencies by definition…

  • But, Waldo, that then begs the question: what are we all paying for FOIA? If you’re not being charged, then we (the taxpayers) are.

    Of course. But most FOIA requests require such a trivial amount of work that the idea of charging for it would be ludicrous. Most of my requests are things like “how much did the city pay for this study to be done?” or “could you send me a copy of the report given to City Council last week?” Those sorts of things take so little time to check on that the amount paid for them would just be goofy (“that’ll be 89¢, please”), and anyhow fall well within the realm of what we expect government to tell us whether or not we’ve got the money.

    Perhaps an indiscriminate call to ‘make a FOIA request’ isn’t efficient of either an individual’s or a government’s time and money.

    That’s absolutely true—it’s a lucky thing I didn’t do that. :) There are occasionally efforts to give localities the power to deny FOIA requests from people who seem to be abusing the system—filing request after request after request, either without apparent interest in the results or perhaps because of mental illness. The problem is that for every person doing that, there’s somebody filing a series of requests because they’re really onto something. So such bills fail, including in this year’s General Assembly.

    My message here is simply that if people need to know something about their government, then they need only ask.

  • You have left out the important fact that a request must be for existing documents, so your last statement isn’t quite true. You also have to basically take it on faith that you have been given all of what you’ve asked for.

    “Subject to the provisions of subsections G and J, no public body shall be required to create a new record if the record does not already exist. However, a public body may abstract or summarize information under such terms and conditions as agreed between the requester and the public body.”

  • You have left out the important fact that a request must be for existing documents

    I figured it was a given, but I can’t see any harm in stating that explicitly, so thanks!

  • Part of your charm is your perennial optimism. I’m guessing though that you have never worked in customer service if you think there is such a thing as a given about what people can figure out on their own.

  • I think “people” is rather a larger category that cvillenews.com readers. The sort of folks who read a local news blog are bound to be more thoughtful, informed, engaged citizens than your average person. Nine years, eleven months and 22 days of experience has taught me to expect the best of folks here, and that’s almost always gone well.

  • Was that a hint for an upcoming tenth anniversary party? Someone should throw one for you.

  • Waldo could you throw up a link to the story you did on NPR lat week? It was very good

    Does that make the anniversary March 28 2001?

  • Waldo could you throw up a link to the story you did on NPR lat week? It was very good

    Thanks! I don’t think it’s online anywhere, unfortunately.

    Does that make the anniversary March 28 2001?

    Yup. That’s when I posted this blockbuster of a story. ;)

  • I think “people” is rather a larger category that cvillenews.com readers. The sort of folks who read a local news blog are bound to be more thoughtful, informed, engaged citizens than your average person.

    Poop! Poopy-poop pants!

    (Wrong again, Waldo!) ;-)

  • Couple random thoughts from someone who both makes a number of FOIA requests and fulfills a number of FOIA requests from others:

    1. Fulfilling FOIA requests effeciently is all about records management. Keeping electronic versions of documentation makes not only fulfilling FOIA requests a breeze, but also make all overall internal sharing more efficient (which saves money).

    When making FOIA requests, I am simply amazed by how many public entities physically copy documents and mail them to me. Now that’s inefficient (and costs money). However, it is not just inefficient for those FOIA requests, but it is inefficient for how they handle their documents in general. That’s the larger problem (and FOIA requests are only a small manifestation of that issue).

    Also, don’t overlook the fact that FOIA can save money too. Providing information freely can help promote new (and more efficient) ideas, fostering greater (and more cost-effective) competition for procurement of products/services, etc., etc. etc.

    2. The weakness of FOIA is that the “request must be for existing documents”. Of course, that is a completely logical premise; except for when an entity is supposed to have certain documents, but they have improperly destroyed them.

    I recently made a FOIA request for a copy of a contract from an entity. Per the Virginia Public Records Act (VPRA) schedules maintained by the Library of Virginia (the folks “in charge” of such things), the entity should have maintained a copy of the contract. They didn’t.

    Is it a FOIA violation? Apparently, not (at least technically); the document technically does not exist.

    Is it a VPRA violation? Yes.

    Are there any punitive enforcement provisions in the VPRA? No.

    So, an entity (thru will or ignorance) can apparently destroy documentation without any repercussions under Virginia Law.

    That’s a problem.

  • Perfect case in point of how FOIA requests should be handled.

    Today I requested some information from the City of Norfolk. Within 63 minutes (yes . . . . minutes). I had all 12 documents (totaling 135 pages) that I was looking for. No printing costs – no mailing costs.

Comments are currently closed.

Sideblog