Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Making Public Access To Public Records Easier

by Matt Rosenberg October 25th, 2014

LONDON – Some of the best public interest news reporting starts with public records requests made by journalists or advocates, to governments. But it can be a sticky, confrontational process. Jeremia Kimelman thinks public records requesters can do better.

Kimelman, a Code for America Fellow, led a session Saturday, October 25, at the 2014 Mozilla Festival (MozFest), harvesting strategies on how to adapt records requests to the data age in a way that respects participants on both sides of the process. One essential ingredient for those requesting  records is decidedly low-tech, said Kimelman: “(It’s) empathy. You need to actually pick up the telephone and call the public records officer and establish a relationship. In the end despite the laws it’s a people-based system.”

Co-presenter Drew Wilson, a CfA Fellow for The City of Denver, added that public records officers often really want to help the public, “but there’s a whole Rube Goldberg machine they have to work, and that you need to understand.”

Kimelman added that the public can increase their odds for success by tailoring their requests carefully; overly broad information requests can be counter-productive.

Wilson, Kimelman and other session participants also stressed that information sleuths can be more effective by first seeking needed data from the dark recesses of the Web, or by using intermediary services which take some of the pain out of requests. A longer-term policy change which could help, said Kimelman, would be the posting online by governments of any information released to one organization or individual in order to comply with a public records request. A bill in Congress to that effect was introduced but hasn’t passed and isn’t likely to for some time, he added.

It ain’t easy

Getting the public records request process to unfold smoothly can be challenging; the data sought is often sensitive and could be used to present the government in an unflattering light. Slow compliance gives rise to suspicions of stonewalling.

One window into such difficulties comes via the open public records site MuckRock, where currently one of the five most viewed records requests was filed by Seattle-area transparency advocate Philip Mocek to the Tacoma Police Department. Mocek sought records related to police purchases of and policy guidelines for use of mobile phone tracking technology.

Mocek’s MuckRock file shows the arduous and lengthy back-and-forth in which open records advocates must often engage, to get even partial compliance with their requests. Also noteworthy is that while Mocek’s tone remains civil throughout, he begins to apply pressure as the process drags on, and more records are delivered shortly afterward.

Workarounds helpful

“Have a good idea of what are the data sets you’re seeking and who holds them. You just have to dig in, then FOIA for what you don’t have”

It doesn’t always have to be about a records request. You can subvert the dominant paradigm by working around public records laws and their requirements. MozFest session participant Kerrie Kehoe, a data journalist for the Thompson Reuters Foundation recommended reporters, advocates and other records requesters get familiar with what’s already available via government deep Web pages and open data sites. She recommended, “Have a good idea of what are the data sets you’re seeking and who holds them. You just have to dig in, then FOIA for what you don’t have.”

Kehoe said the big break in a project to uncover data on contrasting U.S. payments to families of foreign civilians, and U.S. soldiers killed in action, came not through the many FOIA requests filed but rather discovery of a leaked data set online. “I kept doing Google searches and found the data I wanted had been leaked online. Somebody got pissed and dumped a bucket of data on a web site,” she said. She was later able to verify through a grumbly and tight-lipped Department of Defense records officer that the leaked data was authentic.

The resulting news report by the Thompson Reuters Foundation showed that families of killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan typically got payments in the vicinity of $2,500, versus the  $100,000 “death gratuity” paid to families of U.S. soldiers.”

Kimelman had high praise for MuckRock and its ability to undertake sweeping nationwide records requests of governments with potentially high news value – particularly for the Pentagon’s so-called 1033 forms which detail the transfer of surplus U.S. military equipment to local police departments. As of late September, MuckRock had received and posted online full responses from 33 states. Another valuable resource, he said, is FOIA Machine. It generates requests on behalf of records-seekers, does scheduled follow-up queries, and has now introduced a social support function.

This article originally written by Matt Rosenberg was first published at The Open Standard on 10/25/14 under a Creative Commons license allowing full free re-use for non-commercial purposes.

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