9.1.9 Freedom of Information: Public Records

One of the most important initiatives in recent decades has been the opening up of government records to public inspection. Although the U.S. federal government went into reverse on open records during the Bush administration, the trend at the federal and state level, and increasingly around the globe, is toward more openness and access.

When you request government records, keep this in mind:

  1. You don’t need to give a reason for your request. It’s your business, not theirs, why you want to see public documents.
  2. You should be as specific as possible about what you want. Overly broad document or data requests don’t help you or your search.
  3. Be persistent. Officials may turn you down the first time (and in my experience as a journalist, they often did), just to see if you’re serious.

You can find a wealth of online resources on open records laws, state and federal. One is the National Freedom of Information Coalition, which sees its role as protecting the people’s right to oversee their government.

In early 2010, the coalition won a $2 million grant to launch a freedom of information fund to help litigate state and local denials of open-records requests by citizens. This underscored the difficult side of open-records laws: dealing with recalcitrant officials who don’t care what the law says. (I’m on the board of the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit that litigates such requests.)

Public documents these days include data from databases, not just paper documents. In Chapter 10 I’ll discuss some ways we can use that data to help create what is being called “Government 2.0.”

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