How anyone can request government records

Filing cabinet drawers full of file folders holding paper (© Shutterstock)
(© Shutterstock)

Want to know how many tickets police issued to motorists for texting while driving?

Or maybe you’re a journalist trying to understand why a long-time government official retired so suddenly.

In the United States, anyone can use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request public records from the government, whether those records are emails, electronic messages, police reports, expense reports or other government documents.

The act, which went into effect in 1967, compels federal, state and local government agencies to release the information requested unless it falls under specific exemptions, such as personal privacy or national security.

FOIA ushered in a new era of government transparency. Before FOIA, there was no formal process to request records. Government agencies cooperated under the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, says Mark S. Zaid, a longtime FOIA attorney.

“The whole premise of FOIA is to learn what the government is up to,” Zaid says. “The best way a government operates is in the sunlight. And the public can make informed decisions about who we want in elected office and what policies we want the government to pursue if we know what is going on behind the scenes.”

Under FOIA rules, a request in writing is sent to the agency that holds the relevant information. Response requirements vary among states and cities.

The federal government is required to respond within 20 business days unless there are unusual circumstances. The clock usually starts ticking once the responsible government agency receives the request.

If the government — federal, state or local — issues a denial, the requester has the right to appeal that decision in court.

According to the Department of Justice, in 2019 the federal government received 858,952 FOIA requests, slightly lower than the 863,729 it received the year before.

Graph showing FOIA requests received from 2007 to 2019 (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

Chart showing which federal government agencies receive most FOIA requests (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)Although the law was established with journalists in mind, any citizen can use it. A 2017 analysis from FOIA Mapper shows commercial businesses, including law firms, filed the most FOIA requests within the sample size that year. (The study analyzed 229,000 requests sent to 85 federal government agencies.)

Chart showing who sends most FOIA requests to federal agencies (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)Chart showing where businesses send FOIA requests (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission received the most  business queries, followed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Why would businesses want to know what the government is up to? It is probably about the marketplace, Zaid explains. Large companies, especially, want to know anything and everything they can know about their competitors.