Are there drawbacks to FOIAing (Freedom of Information Act, either federally or equivalent state/local laws) an agency? For example, can it lead to an adversarial relationship?
It is very recommended and would very likely smooth the process by at least an order of magnitude.
Often any request for information, formally or informally, is a FOIA request. But either way, talking to someone specific has helped a lot in my experience.
My favored approach:
- See if the info is anywhere online. If it isn't...
- Find someone in the office holding the data and talk to them about what data they collect. Way easier than doing the back and forth of FOIA correspondence. If they don't give you data...
- Ask for the information as a FOIA request. At least you'll know what you're asking for.
There is information available for FOIA requesters on the website of the Federal FOIA Ombudsman, in the office of Government Information Services (OGIS) within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Their website includes best practices for FOIA requesters. While the current information does not appear to directly address your question, the site provides links to external organizations that work on FOIA that may have more directly relevant advice. The Best Practices are available at https://ogis.archives.gov/about-foia/best-practices.htm.
No real drawbacks that I can think of. If there is some question about the data being unusually sensitive, it might be better to take it up through FOIA first but this is pretty rare.
In general the more you can make things personal the better your chances are of getting exactly what you are looking for. Ideally, this means they know what you want and you know them, and everyone is happy. Maybe they will even direct you to public sources of the data before you get to the official FOIA stage. I found for example when I was doing research on noxious weeds when I was in college, the USFS and state agencies were both extremely helpful and in some cases provided information well beyond what I requested (and the same for threatened, sensitive, and endangered species too). It was immensely helpful.
In short the more you get a chance to know them and them you, the better chance you get of a good fit for the data you are looking for.
Another useful method is to write an open letter to the agency requesting the dataset and articulating why it's important for them to release it. By partnering with an NGO or business that might share your interest and adding some heft to it, you can further increase the soft pressure. A specific public facing pressuring can be a good way to put the government's feet to the fire, giving them something specific to address. A FOIA request or email to staff suffer from being out of the public eye and thus a bit less pressing.
(Disclaimer - I am the Sr. API Strategist for GSA)
Your question depends on a few important things for context- If you want a long, productive and helpful relationship with the agency in question, then it does benefit you to create some personal connection first. We always meet with and get to know the analysts who will be responding to requests- that consistently yields a higher quality of response and willingness to help you with technical questions once you get the data. It also gives your request a possible bump in their queue.
Should you not have any reason to build a relationship with them, then the only drawback is that FOIA responses are sometimes carbon copy reactions of your request and are not often value added with data you may not have asked for explicitly- things that a conversation could have helped to discover.
I'm going to provide additional context to consider: From my experience working 7 years as a data journalist and editor, I've been through the 'data acquisition' hoop-jump more times than I can count. Here's the thing to remember: While open data laws require disclosure, they generally do not require disclosure of the data in any particular format. Ideally, you want the data in a machine-readable format so that it can be manipulated, analyzed, visualized, etc., not as, say, a PDF.
There is absolutely no requirement on their end to provide you anything but a PDF, so ideally you'd like to establish as close and trusting a relationship with a point person at the agency as possible so that - if it turns out to require more work to get the data as a CSV or JSON, or the powers that be just don't want to provide it you in anything but a PDF - you'll have someone advocating for you within the department. It's critically important to establish the relationships before you file the FOIA, because once it's filed, it's much harder to negotiate the terms with the agency.
there is no correct answer here, it just depends. as everyone else has pointed out how the approach prior and relationship building is fruitful, here's when its not: when that data is hot-topic, off-topic, explosive journalism, etc. probing could lead to a clamp down not just from them, but from their contacts. if you catch them off guard, you may get what you are looking for.
also if its that kind of data, relationships are nominally off the table, because they're still not going to give it to you. with a smile. again, it all depends. and its a balancing act. weigh the pros and cons and go for it.