The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law enacted in 1966 that gives any US Citizen the right to request information from the federal government, in the interest of transparency and accountability. In the context of competitive intelligence, companies can submit FOIA requests to obtain sensitive documents from their competitors.
Why Should I Care?
In today’s competitive market, sources of reliable, high-value competitive intelligence data can be scarce. This is especially true in the federal marketplace, where legal and ethical boundaries for data collection can be restrictive. This is where a FOIA request can add tremendous value. The process gives companies a unique opportunity to glean valuable insights into their competitors through legal and ethical means. It is an industry best practice and an important element of a good competitive intelligence effort.
How Does it Work?
Say you want to obtain a copy of your competitor’s proposal from a recent (or not-so-recent) acquisition. First, you submit a request to the government via the pertinent FOIA office. After receiving the request, the government must first find the requested document(s), then (importantly) they must contact the document’s originator (in this case the company that submitted the proposal) and give them an opportunity to redact the document to remove sensitive information. Once the government receives a response from the document’s originator OR when the designated time window has elapsed, the government then releases the document (redacted or not) to the requestor. This can all be done free of charge to the requestor, though sometimes there is a nominal fee (dollars in the hundreds, not thousands). This process typically takes several months or longer, which brings us to the next topic…
When to Submit a FOIA Request?
Given the lengthy processing time for FOIA requests, it is highly recommended that requests be submitted as early as possible. This underscores the importance of an early start to the competitive intelligence process. In fact, an industry best practice is to submit FOIA requests for competitor proposals as soon as the contract is awarded.
At this point, you may wonder “Why should I bother, if my competitors are simply going to redact all their sensitive information?” You may be surprised to learn how many companies have weak or imperfect processes in place for responding to these requests. In many cases, they fail to respond to the government in a timely manner because of a “not my job” mentality, or they redact the document inadequately, leaving valuable data exposed. Either of those instances can provide valuable competitive intelligence data to the requestor.
Competitor proposals are not the only things that can be requested. There are a few exemptions that protect certain information from being released, including classified content, certain law enforcement information, or information that is of a sensitive personal nature, just to name a few. But even in those cases, redacted documents may be releasable. Other documents that may be valuable include presentations, RFI responses, contact lists, and organization charts.
In light of all of the above, it would be wise to consider how a small amount of time and effort investigating potential opportunities within the FOIA process can provide you with a competitive advantage – especially for opportunities that are more than a year away. Additionally, you may want to take a moment to double-check your own company’s processes and procedures for responding to these kinds of requests. It is extremely important for companies to diligently respond to any and all FOIA requests that come their way by redacting sensitive information from documents before they are released.
For FOIA- or competitive intelligence-related questions, please reach out to us at [email protected]