The goal in revising the regulations was an attempt to make them more user friendly.
These new regulations were developed using feedback from requesters and the general public.
The DoJ has said that the language used in the regulations has been ‘streamlined’ (1).
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act basically allows you to request information from any federal agency. Essentially, all you have to do is contact the appropriate people stating the information you would like under the Freedom of Information Act and they have a duty to respond.
As these requests can take a long time to fulfill, much of the available information has been published online. So it’s worth doing as much research as possible before you send an FOIA request. There is generally no monetary fee for making an FOIA request, although if your request for information will take a long time to prepare or you require the information in a certain way, you may be asked to cover the staffing and material costs.
Typically TOIA is a key resource for journalists, but can be used by anyone. You can request any information through the FOIA, although there are nine exceptions including:
–> Anything classified
–> Anything regarding internal personnel, including staff medical files
–> Information protected by legal privileges
–> Law enforcement records, particularly those of ongoing cases
–> Trade secrets and business information
–> Bank supervision information
–> Geological and geophysical information
At first glance, these nine exceptions cover most of the work that the federal agencies do and might make you wonder what the point is. The Government can’t hand over any sensitive information, including those of a personal nature or those which may harm the safety of individuals or the country, but you can ask for facts and figures.
Are the Revised Regulations More User Friendly?
Overall, the DoJ suggests that the updated regulations should make placing a freedom of information request much easier, and that the communication channels between the department and requester will be clearer. As the new regulations don’t take effect until May, this remains to be seen. Are the new regulations themselves user friendly?
When compared, it is difficult to see how the new regulations are better than the old ones (3). The general information is mostly the same and the text has been reworded but instead of using plain English and easy to understand formatting, the new regulations seems to use more convoluted language than the old.
For example, right at the beginning under the heading of “How to Make a Request”, which is potentially the most important heading for many, the text in the old regulations immediately explains that requests can be made via post or email, with details on how to find the correct address. Whereas in the new regulations, words such as ‘decentralized’ and terms such as ‘web portal’ are used where they are not necessary, going against basic plain English guidelines for creating user friendly text.
On the other hand, the new regulations state the general post and email addresses to send requests to if the correct team or department can’t be found, which is certainly more user friendly than omitting this information. This use of language continues throughout the new regulations. While including new information is helpful to requesters or those interested in the FOIA, the language leaves a lot to be desired and is more difficult to read in places than the old regulations.
It will be interesting to see how these new regulations will be finally published in May, and whether the PDF published on the website currently is the final formatting. If it is, then the DoJ may have been better off sticking with the old, simpler regulations. As to whether these new regulations will have any impact on the requester’s experience, we shall have to wait and see.