But what to request?
Even with the Freedom of Information Act, asking the government for information isn’t as simple as walking in and saying “I want information on road maintenance”, because you would receive far too many files (and that’s only if you could pay for the copies). Alternatively, you could ask for information about a nearby wildlife project, but if you ask the wrong agency, or if the government doesn’t track that, the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t require them to create a record for you where one doesn’t already exist. You need to be able to ask for records you know exist, but specifically enough to not be deluged by irrelevant information you can’t afford to pay for, or spend time with.
A little research and creativity is all it takes. Any form or file a government collects is usually kept on record somewhere, waiting for the day someone like you wants to view it. All you have to do is figure out what you want, and who has it.
As a technology-minded person, one of the first places I go is an agency’s website. Many agencies keep previously requested information on their website somewhere, and you can browse what people have requested before to get ideas for your own request.
You can also look at the forms available on the website. These forms are usually entered into electronic databases that could be requested in whole or in part.
If you don’t use the internet, you can visit local offices and see what forms they have available. Often, blank forms for various programs are left out for people to take and fill in at their leisure. Or there may be brochures or other information about permitting or licensing processes that could give you ideas. You could also ask to see forms of a specific type. Many government employees have the same interests in transparency as any citizen, and are willing to help someone who asks kindly.
Getting the agency’s retention schedule is another way to discover information they’re keeping that you may want to see. A retention schedule is a document that describes what information an agency keeps and how the agency keeps it. If the retention schedule isn’t readily available, you could always use a FOIA request to get the retention schedule itself.
Maybe you don’t even know who you might want to request information from. It’s okay to want to just file a request for its own sake. It’s an interesting and somewhat unique way to interact with your government. Try going to MuckRock.com, and browse their “Projects” page. Their site has a lot of ideas for requests on it, but they also do collective national projects that you can contribute to by filing FOIA requests with your local governments.
Another thing that can happen is knowing what information you want, but not who keeps it. Without the internet, you pretty much have to get on the phone and start calling agencies until one of them admits to having responsibility over whatever you’re interested in.
However, Google can be a powerful tool for finding clues to what you may be interested in. For instance you can search “site:michigan.gov filetype:pdf” and you’ll get all of the PDF files on the michigan.gov site. That’s probably more than you need, but you can add keywords at the beginning, and narrow it down.
For instance, “dams site:michigan.gov filetype:pdf” shows documents created and put online about dams. You can put in different keywords, sites, and file types, and browse the results for ideas on what you might be interested in, and who keeps that kind of information.
If all else fails, request other requests. That’s right, FOIA requests themselves become public documents and are themselves requestable. If you can’t think of anything else to request, ask for the last year’s worth of FOIA requests submitted to a local government or agency, and the replies given. I find it’s a good place to get started if you’re at a loss for what to do.
Next time, we’ll dive into how to write a request.
Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to email@example.com.