Public data belongs to all of us; we just have to ask
Journalists file public record requests to access information on government agencies — from public schools to police units. However, you don’t need to be a reporter. Anyone can access public records.
Editor's note: This is one in a series of news stories and editorials from Forum Communications in support of open government. Sunshine Week, which champions open government and celebrates access to public information, is March 12-18.
Emails between school board members. City budgetary information. Health data from the state. These are all part of the public record.
Journalists frequently file public record requests to collect information that is often overlooked or hidden. It’s possible to request information like this from any government unit or government-run institution — from public schools to city police departments. However, you don’t need to be a reporter to make these requests. Anyone can access the public record.
Your right to access public data is protected under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a more than 50-year-old federal law, which allows the public to request records from any government agency.
“The basic function of the Freedom of Information Act is to ensure informed citizens, vital to the functioning of a democratic society,” the U.S. Department of Justice writes on its FOIA webpage.
A legal request can be made for any federal, state or local government record — the information just has to exist. FOIA does not require agencies to create new records or to conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to requests. Agencies can also deny requests if they fall under exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.
Don Gemberling leads the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, a Twin Cities nonprofit that provides public education on government transparency and information policy. He said that it’s important that people, not just journalists, are going out and demanding government information and making it available to the public.
“We live at a time when we’re constantly bombarded with emails, press releases, misinformation and conflicting information of what’s real,” Gemberling said. “But underneath that all, there are actual records full of government data. And sometimes they may be the best place to look to find the truth.”
But how do we go about getting those records?
Before you request
- First look to see if the information you are interested in is already publicly available. You can find a lot of useful information on a range of topics on government websites.
- If not, try contacting the agency and asking if they’d be willing to share the information with you. Sometimes a public record request isn’t needed.
- Determine if you are requesting federal or state data. If you are requesting data from a state or local government unit, you will need to reference the state’s specific freedom of information law in your request. Examples include Minnesota's Government Data Practices Act, the North Dakota Open Records Statute, the South Dakota Sunshine Law and the Wisconsin Open Records Law.
Creating a request
- There is no special form to fill out. A request simply must be in writing and reasonably describe the records you seek. Most government agencies now accept FOIA requests electronically, including by web form, email or fax.
- Determine who the records custodian or public information officer is. You should address your request to this person.
- Be as specific as possible. Do you know the time frame of the records that you seek? Is there a keyword that they must include? What type of information do you want? Email records, voice memos, data, etc.?
- Specify the format you wish to receive the records in — printed or electronic, for example.
The National Freedom of Information Coalition has put together sample freedom of information requests. Here are a few to get you started:
- Minnesota Sample FOIA Request
- North Dakota Sample FOIA Request
- South Dakota Sample FOIA Request
- Wisconsin Sample FOIA Request
After the request
- Agencies typically process requests in the order they're received. How long it takes often depends on the complexity of the request and the number of requests ahead of you.
- Some states have instituted deadlines to ensure you get responses in a timely manner. Research to see if your state has any such provisions. Wisconsin law, for example, requires that the record custodian respond within five days if they intent to deny the request.
- Keep in touch with the records custodian and reach out periodically to learn more about the status of your request.
To learn more about the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and how to request public information under the law, go to foia.gov .