FOIA Glossary and Help

Administrative Appeal – An independent review of the initial determination made in response to a FOIA request. Requesters who are dissatisfied with the response made on their initial request have a statutory right to appeal that initial determination to an office within the agency which will then conduct an independent review.

Annual FOIA Report – A report required to be filed each year with the Department of Justice by all federal agencies detailing the agency’s administration of the FOIA. Annual FOIA Reports contained detailed statistics on the number of FOIA requests and appeals received, processed, and pending at each agency.

Backlog – The number of requests or administrative appeals that are pending beyond the statutory time period for a response. Play Video: Help - Backlog

Certification of Identity – To ensure that one person’s records are not inadvertently disclosed to another person, individuals requesting records on themselves are asked to certify their identity by signing a sworn statement certifying that they are who they say they are.

Chief FOIA Officer – A designated high-level official within each agency who has overall responsibility for the agency’s compliance with the FOIA.

Each federal agency is required to have a Chief FOIA Officer, who is responsible for ensuring that their agency is compliant with the FOIA, that their agency is working efficiently on FOIA requests and appeals, and constantly improving how each agency works with the FOIA. While each agency has a Chief FOIA Officer, these officers serve in an oversight position, and are not always the main FOIA contact in each agency.

Chief FOIA Officer Report – A report required to be filed with the Department of Justice which details each agency’s progress in improving transparency and compliance with the FOIA.

Commercial Requester – Any person making a FOIA request that requests information for a use or a purpose that furthers a commercial, trade, or profit interest, which can include furthering those interests through litigation.

Complex Request – A FOIA request that an agency anticipates will involve a voluminous amount of material to review or will be time-consuming to process.

Component – For agencies that process requests on a decentralized basis, a “component” is an entity, also sometimes referred to as an Office, Division, Bureau, Center, or Directorate, within the agency that processes FOIA requests. The FOIA now requires that agencies include in their Annual FOIA Report data for both the agency overall and for each principal subpart or “component” of that agency.

Consultation – When an agency locates a record that contains information of interest to another agency, it will ask for the views of that other agency on the disclosablity of the records before any final determination is made. This process is called a “consultation.” Play Video: Help - Consultation

Contact – The name, address and phone number at each agency or office where you can make a FOIA request. Each agency or office only handles their own records, so make sure you direct a request to the agency or office that would have the records you are interested in.

Decentralized Agencies or Decentralized FOIA Process – When an agency is separated into components or offices and those individual components handle FOIA requests for their own records, the FOIA process is called “decentralized.” Most large federal agencies have a decentralized FOIA process, where requesters send their requests directly to the component or office of the agency that maintains the records they seek, and that component handles the request.

Discretionary Disclosure – The release of or portions of records to a FOIA requester that could be withheld by an agency under one or more FOIA exemptions.

Educational Requester – Any person making a FOIA request authorized by, and is made under the auspices of, a qualifying institution, and that the records are not sought for a commercial use, but rather are sought to further scholarly research.  Please note, records requested for the intention of fulfilling credit requirements are not considered to be sought for a scholarly purpose.

Equivalent Full-Time FOIA Employees – The number of staff at a department or agency where part of their job functions is to work on FOIA, but FOIA work is not the only function of their full time position.   For example, if an office has one person who works on FOIA issues for 40% of their time, this would be counted as 0.4 of an equivalent full-time FOIA employee.

Exclusions – Congress has provided special protection in the FOIA for three narrow categories of law enforcement and national security records. The provisions protecting those records are known as "exclusions." Records falling within an exclusion are not subject to the requirements of the FOIA. So, when an office or agency responds to your request, it will limit its response to those records that are subject to the FOIA.

Exemptions - Certain categories of information are not required to be released in response to a FOIA request because release would be harmful to governmental or private interests.  When an agency withholds information in response to a FOIA request, they will apply one of the nine exemptions to the FOIA to explain why they are doing so. Play Video: Help - Exemptions   

Exemption 3 Statute – A federal statute that provides protection from disclosure for certain information.

Expedited Processing – In certain limited situations, FOIA requesters can ask that their request be processed ahead of other pending requests. This is called expedited processing. The standards for expedited processing are set out in the FOIA and in the regulations of each federal agency.

Fee Waiver – A request made to an agency that it waive any applicable fees for their processing of a FOIA request. Fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester can show that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester. Requests for fee waivers from individuals who are seeking records pertaining to themselves usually do not meet this standard. In addition, a requester's inability to pay fees is not a legal basis for granting a fee waiver.

FOIA – The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law in 1966. The FOIA provides individuals with a statutory right of access to certain federal agency records. The FOIA requires agencies to disclose requested records unless they are protected from public disclosure by the FOIA. Congress included in the FOIA nine
exemptions and three law enforcement exclusions to protect important interests such as national security, personal privacy, privileged communications, and law enforcement.

FOIA Library – A page, formerly called an "electronic Reading Room," where agencies post proactive disclosures. The FOIA Library, usually a separate page within an agency’s overall FOIA website, is a place for the public to view and inspect agency records to see if material is already available without the need to make a FOIA request.

FOIA Request – A request submitted to a federal agency asking for access to agency records on any topic. A FOIA request can generally be made by any person, to any federal agency, and only requires that requesters reasonably describe the records they are seeking and comply with agency regulations for making such requests.

FOIA.GOV – The flagship initiative of the Department of Justice’s Open Government Plan, FOIA.Gov is a government-wide FOIA resource. On this website the public will have access to all the FOIA data collected by the Department of Justice and will be able to view the data graphically and generate reports. Additionally, the website contains information to educate the public about how the FOIA works, spotlights significant FOIA releases and explains how to make FOIA requests to federal agencies.

Frequently Requested Records – Records that have been the subject of three or more FOIA requests.

Full Denial – An agency decision not to release any records in response to a FOIA request because, for example, the records are exempt in their entireties under one or more FOIA exemptions, or because of a procedural reason, such as when no records responsive to the request could be located.

Full Grant – An agency decision to disclose all records in full in response to a FOIA request.

Full-Time FOIA Employees – The number of staff at a department or agency who work on FOIA full time in their positions.

Media Requester – Any person making a FOIA request who actively gathers news for an entity that is organized and operated to publish or broadcast news to the public that actively gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the public, uses its editorial skills to turn the raw materials into a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience.  A request for records that supports the news-dissemination function of the requester shall not be considered to be for a commercial use

Multi-Track Processing – A system that divides in-coming FOIA requests according to their complexity so that simple requests requiring relatively minimal review are placed in one processing track and more complex requests are placed in one or more other tracks. Requests granted expedited processing are placed in yet another track. Requests in each track are processed on a first in/first out basis.

Non-Commercial (Scientific) Requester – Any person making a FOIA request authorized by, and is made under the auspices of, a qualifying non-commercial scientific institution, and that the records are sought to further scientific research and not for a commercial use.

Non-Commercial Scientific Institution – An institution that is not operated on a “commercial” basis, and that is operated solely for the purpose of conducting scientific research the results of which are not intended to promote any particular product or industry.

Office of Government Information Services – The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which opened in early September 2009, offers mediation services to resolve disputes between FOIA requesters and agencies as an alternative to litigation.  OGIS also reviews agency FOIA compliance, policies, and procedures and makes recommendations for improvement.  The Office is a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, and was created by Congress as part of the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which amended the FOIA.

Other Requester – Any person making a request that is not a member of the media, an educational institution, and is not making a request for a commercial interest

Partial Grant/Partial Denial – An agency decision to disclose portions of the records in response to a FOIA request and to withhold or otherwise deny other portions of the request.

Pending Request or Pending Appeal – A FOIA request or administrative appeal for which an agency has not yet taken final action in all respects.

Perfected Request – A request for records which reasonably describes the records sought and is made in accordance with the agency’s regulations regarding FOIA requests.

Proactive Disclosures – Records made publicly available by agencies without waiting for a specific FOIA request. Agencies now post on their websites a vast amount of material concerning their functions and mission. The FOIA itself requires agencies to make available certain categories of information, including final opinions and orders, specific policy statements, certain administrative staff manuals and frequently requested records.

Processed Request or Processed Appeal – A request or administrative appeal for which an agency has taken final action in all respects.

Public Liaison – If you have any issues with how an agency or office is handling your request, you can call the number found here to talk with that agency or office’s FOIA Public Liaison, who will work to address your concerns.

Referral – When an agency locates a record that originated with, or is of otherwise primary interest to another agency, it will forward that record to the other agency to process the record and to provide the final determination directly to the requester. This process is called a “referral.”

Requester Fee Category – A category assigned to an individual or organization making a FOIA request for the purposes of assessing fees.  While the regulations of each agency determine the amount of money that may be assessed, all agencies divide requesters into three general categories: Commercial, Educational / Media / Non-Commercial (Scientific), and Other.  Commercial requesters are charged fees for the review, search, and duplication of records.  Educational/Media/Non-Commercial (Scientific) requesters are charged fees for the duplication of records only.  Other requesters are charged fees for the search and duplication of records

Requester Service Center – This is the name and phone number of a contact at each agency or office, where you can call and ask questions about your pending FOIA request. Much like with the FOIA Contact, each agency or office handles only the requests that have been sent to them, and can only answer questions on pending requests within their office.

Simple Request – A FOIA request that an agency anticipates will involve a small volume of material or which will be able to be processed relatively quickly.

Total Number of Full-Time FOIA Staff – The total number of staff at a department or agency who work on FOIA when adding together the number of Full-Time FOIA Employees and Equivalent Full-Time FOIA Employees.


Last Updated: 7/2011

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