Wisconsin Public Records Request

The Wisconsin public records law, Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31–19.39, says you can ask for any records that a local, state, or federal agency has (there are some exceptions)—not just paper documents, but electronic files, photos, videos, etc. But to get the best results—getting the documents you want, and not too many that you don’t, in a reasonable amount of time—you have to think strategically about how to write your request. Make sure it’s clear because the agency will read it very literally. If it’s too broad, you may have to pay for copies of hundreds of documents you don’t want; but if it’s too narrow, the agency might not find what you want.

Here are some helpful tips and a sample letter:

  1. Do your RESEARCH before you file a FOIA request.
  • Ascertain whether the documents you are seeking already are publicly available. Review agency websites, including their online FOIA reading rooms. Doing your research first will inform you as to the key events and key decision-makers on your topic, help you pinpoint documents and agencies in your requests, and keep you from requesting material extraneous to your interest. 
  1. WRITE your request clearly; and be specific.
  • Overly broad requests are wasteful in time (yours and the government’s) and resources (yours, and the government’s). Please keep in mind that agencies  are required only to search for documents under the FOIA, not create them. You cannot ask an agency to do your research for you. Only if you are fairly certain that a government agency will have documents should you send a FOIA request.
  • Be specific: assume the FOIA officer is not familiar with your topic. Many agencies perform computerized searches for documents, using key words and phrases. For example, an agency may not be able to search “escalation of tension,” but be able to search “military assistance.” Also, provide accurate titles and dates, full names, and pertinent news stories discussing the subject of your request. In other words, assist the person in doing the search by providing key items of information.
  • Keep your request brief, avoiding narratives, as they likely will confuse the FOIA Officer. Don’t write two-page supporting essays for your request, as they will only create confusion for the FOIA Officer.
  1. TARGET your request.
  2. In addition to researching your topic, research the government website to find out where to send the request.
  3. It is worth your time to find out exactly which components of agencies maintain the documents you are requesting. It will save time (weeks, months or even years) in referrals.
  • Establish and maintain CONTACT with the agency.
    Agency response letters often identify a point-of-contact or case officer for your FOIA request. If not, after a reasonable period of time, call and check on the status of your request and identify the case officer. Your effort will indicate to the FOIA officer your continued interest in the request. The FOIA officer can then advise you of estimated fees; can seek clarification of your request; can advise you of delays; and can advise you if extraneous material is located.
  • Don’t harass your FOIA officer with too many calls or letters. Yours is not the only case the agency has received. Also, consider that at some agencies program (or policy) officers may also handle FOIA requests, and your request is just one of many tasks they must undertake.
  • Note all substantive telephone contacts in addition to the agency correspondence you receive.
  • Keep a log of all contacts with the agency regarding your FOIA request.

6. DELAYS in processing requests, while frustrating, can be expected.

  • Delays in processing FOIA requests occur at many agencies and are endemic at a handful of agencies. Most agency delays are short, perhaps only a week or two.


Consider the FOIA officer receiving your request. A well-written request, helpful contact, and a non-confrontational manner on your end will only aid the processing of your request. The FOIA officer is often faced with bureaucratic or ideological intransigence within his or her own agency. Pestering your FOIA contact at an agency may mean jeopardizing a helpful source of information.