Some FOIA Notes

Because I know a lot of regular readers of this site are big fans of making use of the FOIA, a couple thoughts notes on the subject, which is one that has long been of interest to me.

As I noted a while ago DHS is improving their FOIA processing, with a whole set of performance goals that are supposed to be met, complete with deadlines. As the middle of the calendar year (more or less), June 30th is the deadline for a lot of these improvements – notably, more user-friendly websites, but also the dissemination of basic “FOIA 101” information to all employees.

Some components are already well on their way to meeting their end-of-June goals; others, it looks like, will be cutting it close. DHS itself is hardly leading by example; as of this afternoon, their website has yet to be updated, and as of last week they were refusing to release their two “FOIA 101” documents under the FOIA (oh, the irony) because they were still in draft form and “pre-decisional”, thereby exempt (so they claim) from release. We’ll see how things fare as the deadline looms closer.

One DHS component who are on the ball is – not surprisingly – the relatively unknown FLETC, whose webpage contains pretty much everything it’s supposed to.

Reading through their FOIA Guide, I was struck by something interesting in their fee structure. All government agencies can (and do) charge fees to process FOIA requests. For most of us, the fees for the first two hours of searches are waived, as are the duplication costs (which range from ten to twenty-five cents per page) for the first one-hundred pages. Beyond that, though, most agencies have a minimum amount they’ll assess fees for, and will waive any that fall under that. For the FBI, it’s ten bucks; for DHS, twelve – and for the FLETC, a quite impressive $25.

Here’s the interesting thing, though – not all agencies count the first one-hundred pages of photocopies as truly “free” – most simply waive the fees for them. The FBI is a good example – at ten cents per page, one-hundred pages is ten dollars, the amount under which they waive fees. That 101st page is, essentially, $10.10 – and all subsequent pages are ten cents each.

The FLETC, though, counts the first hundred pages as outright freebies, additional pages at $0.15 each – and waives any fees under $25. So, in essence, the first two-hundred sixty-six pages released in response to any request there (exclusive of any other fees) are free. Nice.

The ostensible reason for the minimum fees is (everyone claims) because it costs a certain minimum amount of money to track, process, and account for payments received. The usual example given is that it costs the FBI, say, ten bucks to process your cheque for FOIA fees, regardless of amount, so they’d rather take a loss on, say, eight bucks of fees than spend another ten bucks to collect that eight. There seems to be a certain logic flaw there that I can’t put my finger on, but fiduciary maths is not one of my strongest suits.

Something I have noticed, which pretty much all government agencies are guilty of, is that fee schedules have yet to be updated to reflect the technology age, let alone the 21st century. It isn’t at all uncommon to receive records in response to FOIA requests on CD-ROMs or even DVDs (or, indeed, floppy disks or even magnetic tape.) While you can fit a whole lot of stuff on media like this, I’ve yet to see an agency fee schedule that lists the price of such media.

In the computer-centric environment of today, most government records (though by no means all) originate, at least, in electronic form. To save time, money, and trees, I habitually ask for records “in electronic format, if possible” if they’re reasonably short, and it isn’t uncommon to receive responses as email attachments.

In closing, a fun trivia fact for anyone who has ever requested, or viewed, older (roughly pre-1980) government records – way back when the rest of the United States had standardized on two paper sized, “letter” (8-1/2 by 11 inches) and “legal” (8-1/2 by 14 inches), the Government standardized, for no very good reason, on their own size of 8×10.5 inches. This is why you frequently see a black border around photocopies of old Army, or FBI, or whatever, documents – they weren’t photocopied at 95% enlargement, as some have supposed, but copied onto the standard, letter-sized paper now used.

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on June 18th, 2007| Comments Off on Some FOIA Notes

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