By Sofia Tyreman
Access to public information is a fundamental right in the United States, and anyone can submit a public records request to a government agency to retrieve material not already available online.
However, some common barriers to obtaining information include potential costs for data; lack of specificity with requests; and being unaware which open government laws apply.
“Someone needs to be watching our government,” says Christian McDonald, professor and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. “If you think open government is important in a democracy, transparency is important to keep it open.”
McDonald teaches a “Reporting with Data” course and requires his students to submit a public information request to an agency of their choice.
Some requests, such as those filed with the University of Texas, can cost money, says McDonald.
“For student journalists, cost is a huge barrier,” he says. “As more information is deemed protected, certain records need redaction which takes time and human effort. So, that gets expensive.”
However, not all public information requests are costly, and they don’t have to follow a particular format. Submissions must be in writing in order to trigger the provisions of the Texas Public Information Act. The more precise the language in the request, the more likely a response will be prompt and include the information the requestor seeks.
The Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act were passed into law nearly 40 years ago, which made open government a protected right in the Lone Star State.
Under these state laws, every “regular, special, or called meeting of a governmental body shall be open to the public,” and information held by state and local government, such as reports, audits, evaluations, salaries and the names, gender and ethnicity of public employees, are accessible to the public.
Additionally, the Freedom of Information Act mandates the full or partial disclosure of governmental documents and information on a federal level.
By making a public information request, individuals use an important tool to hold legislative bodies and other government entities accountable.
To yield the best results, McDonald recommends asking for specific fields and dates and to make sure the agency understands what you’re looking for.
“It’s not uncommon to file a second request,” he says. “I usually learn something new from the process.”
Another piece of advice McDonald gives his students about making a submission is to know which laws apply.
“You should know what the rules are in whatever state you’re in. If you’re applying for a local or state government, a different law applies [when compared to a federal agency].”
McDonald highlights the importance of open government and public information requests to maintain a full-functioning democratic society.
“Part of our job as journalists is to be a watch dog, be enlightened and bring context to how our government works and how our society works,” he says. “And I think that public information laws and open meeting laws are part of the fabric that makes that possible.”
No specific wording is required in a Texas public records request. Optional templates for federal, state and local request letters are accessible via the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas website at: https://foift.org/resources/letter-templates/foi-letter/