Do you actually have to file a request?

Most people think of FOIA in terms of requesters: people writing to agencies in search of information. But the Act goes further to make information public. It requires the agencies to make documents available on their Web sites and in physical “reading rooms.”

FOIA requires agencies to publish in the Federal Register any regulations or general policy statements. For instance, each agency must publish its regulations telling the public what rules it will follow in processing FOIA requests. Final regulations are published in the Code of Federal Regulations available at law libraries. The Government Printing Office Electronic Information Enhancement Act of 1993 requires GPO to make these materials available online as well.10

The Act also requires agencies to make available for inspection or copying final opinions, staff instructions and other information that would affect a member of the public. This is often called the “reading room” requirement — meaning those documents need to be available to the public in a physical reading room.

The Electronic FOIA Amendments of 1996 greatly expanded the requirements that the government take affirmative steps to make information available. It requires government agencies to post online any information created after November 1996 that would have formerly been required to be placed in physical reading rooms. The law further requires that responses to requests likely to be repeated be made available online as well as in paper form. The agencies must index these records for the public and make both the index and the documents available electronically.

Agencies must also develop reference guides to help the public access agency information. These must be available both in the physical reading rooms and online.

10 44 U.S.C. § 4101(a)(1).