FOIA: One Way to Get an Edge on the Competition

Doing business with the federal government? If you’re willing to dig, you can find a wealth of “insider” information through the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) process.

Simply put, FOIA lets individuals or companies obtain records from Federal agencies. You can use these documents to both assess upcoming opportunities and evaluate potential competitors.

  • Here are some samples of the kinds of documents you can request to assess upcoming opportunities:
  • Active Contract Summaries—Tells you what an agency has going on now; you can extrapolate.
  • Source Selection Plans—Shows you what a client has to do to prepare for an acquisition.
  • Strategic Plans—Identifies agency goals, objectives and even some action plans.
  • Acquisition Planning Documents—Gives a snapshot of a client’s acquisition plans.

And here are sample documents you can obtain that may give insight into your competition:

  • Past Contracts—Tells you who contracted for what work and how the contract was structured.
  • Contract Change Requests/Contract Modifications Executed—Gives you a history of contract modifications asked for by a contractor/consultant and accepted by the client.
  • Performance Reports (CPARS)—Gives information on the performance of a contractor/consultant on a given project.

Some Limitations

Some information is protected from release under one or more of nine specific exemptions. The exemptions are: (1) Classified Documents; (2) Personnel Rules & Practices; (3) Exempted by Statute; (4) Trade Secrets/Proprietary Data; (5) Internal Deliberative Memorandum & Opinions; (6) Personal Privacy; (7) Investigative Records; (8) Financial Institutions; (9) Geological/Geophysical Data.

How To Request Information

Here are some tips for requesting information through FOIA:

  • Determine what you want. You need to ask for specific documents; you cannot simply ask for information. This means that you have to know what documents contain the data you want.
  • Identify which agency has the information. Don’t shotgun a request to a variety of agencies. Don’t write a “boilerplate” letter.
  • Write your request clearly and specifically. Don’t ask for a broad range of documents hoping to find some gems. The FOIA officer at a given agency is vastly overworked as it is; don’t add to his/her burden.
  • Maintain contact with the FOIA officer. Follow up your request with a phone call.
  • Be prepared to pay something. Your costs may cover processing, copying and mailing.
  • Follow up. If you haven’t heard back in a reasonable amount of time (the law requires a response within ten working days, but many agencies are swamped with requests) call and leave a gentle reminder.