FOI experts share tips for smoother access to public information

By Kelley Shannon
FOI Foundation of Texas
Executive Director

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The National Freedom of Information Coalition Summit this week featured a discussion with journalists, attorneys and open government advocates on how to write better public information requests and how to overcome barriers to access.

Participating panelists were Florida journalist Kris Hundley; Thomas Susman, director of governmental affairs for the American Bar Association; Shane Shifflett, developer of FOIA Machine; and Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation of Florida. Here’s a quick look at some of their tips:

-When seeking a government document in electronic format, specify that you would like it in its “native electronic format” to try to avoid receiving it in PDF. If you can, talk “geek to geek” to an official with the government agency to make your format request clear.

-Sometimes “getting to yes” and receiving desired records requires establishing a rapport with the government official. That may mean going beyond email and using the phone to have a conversation.

-If it appears that your request is too broad and may be generating so many records that you receive a large cost estimate, consider narrowing the request. Instead of asking for certain records over a period of several years, seek the same information for one or two years to assess what is available. Then expand, if necessary.

-Requesting records from government that pertain to private-sector businesses can promote competition and fairness. But be aware that many businesses will argue to a governmental agency that everything is confidential for business reasons or will “bully” the governmental agency into redacting most of the material. If all else fails, a business may seek to delay release of the information.

-If your public records request is ultimately denied, request all records, such as emails, associated with your denial. This helps you gain insight into the process, and you may want to publicize it.