FOIA, I hardly know ya! (Yearly Report Card on Federal Government’s efforts to track and manage Freedom of Information Act requests)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are a critical element of business development and capture. This is how you learn about a pursuit’s history and your competition. The problem is – FOIA requests are tricky:

OST proposal management process: proposal kick-off (integration phase), pink team and proposal drafting (planning phase), red team and proposal writing (writing phase), proposal polishing and gold team (polishing phase), proposal editing, printing, and shipping (publication phase), and proposal debriefs and lessons learned (post-proposal phase)

  • They take forever to obtain – so someone needs to carefully track them and follow up relentlessly to get any results – sometimes taking months and rendering your requests useless for your capture effort.
  • They have a potential to tick off your competition as they will know who is requesting – and if you tend to team with this competitor on occasion, you may want to be strategic as to what you request.
  • Third-party FOIA requests through services such as GovWin IQ and Centurion are great. They are faster as these services have established contacts in FOIA offices and they have personnel to follow up. The party whose documents are subject to FOIA doesn’t know who is requesting the FOIA documents. The downside is, now that these services have gone through the effort of fetching the information for you, they may also reuse this information to provide it to your competitors. Brilliant move on your part to FOIA something. Now your competitors subscribing to these services will have a reason to thank you. This may or may not matter to you.

Now it promises to be even harder to get FOIA documents – the length of time is stretching to close to a year. On March 15th, 2012 the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released their yearly Report Card on Federal Government’s efforts to track and manage FOIA requests. This report is critical of the federal government’s tracking of how it processes and responds to FOIA requests. Agencies got an average grade of C-. FOIA logs were requested to be graded based on a few criteria: names of FOIA requesters on log, tracking numbers for requests, descriptions of material sought, and whether records were in fact released. There are now as many as 13-months delays in some requests.

There are two things to consider:

  1. These grades are an indication of a willingness and ability by certain agencies FOIA offices to show accountability and transparency. You should be concerned about how difficult it is to obtain the information needed to help us decide to pursue an opportunity, enrich our capture efforts, and produce a proposal.
  2. See if the agencies that received an F grade are part of your customer list. There were two reasons to receive this grade: either the agency did not respond to FOIA requests – which in itself is a bad sign – or failed to produce them in digital format (which is a FOIA rule). In this case, save yourself an effort and don’t count on FOIA information – try to find it in other ethical ways.

What does this report mean to you? Well, a couple of things. First, start waaaay early with your capture. If you feel that you need to FOIA documents, plan for months of waiting to get them. Second, use the resources available to you to their maximum, such as the paid services that can help you. However, be strategic about it, you may get the information faster and anonymously, but know that others may get it as well. There is no difference in the thought process when asking questions about an RFP in a public forum: is getting what you need worth making your competition better off?

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