Submit a records request like a pro in 8 easy steps
Posted March 13, 2018 6:00 a.m. EDT
Updated March 14, 2018 11:55 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Say you want information from a government agency.
You haven't found what you need by searching Google or scanning the agency's website, but you're sure that somewhere, either buried in a dusty basement file cabinet or stored on an employee's hard drive, the document you want is out there. That's the mindset investigative reporters often adopt when thinking about how to track down information.
There's nothing inherently special about journalists' access to government records under the law – anything we can get, you can get. But given that requesting documents is a regular part of our job (WRAL News has about 30 requests pending with various agencies right now), we've picked up a few strategies that help us get our information a little more quickly.
Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government taking place this year from March 11 to March 18, is a great opportunity to share what we know so you can access public information like a pro. We're talking mostly about North Carolina public records law here, but much of this advice applies on the federal level, too.
1. Identify the records you want
Neither state nor federal law requires government agencies to create records in response to requests from the public, so make sure what you're asking for already exists. In other words, agencies must provide records but aren't required to do investigative research or crunch numbers for you.
In North Carolina, the underlying assumption is that if the document is created with taxpayer money, it belongs to you. There are plenty of specific exemptions to that law. But North Carolina public records law grants citizens broad access to emails, text messages, databases, government contracts, call logs, reports, photographs and reams of other data and documents created by public employees on the local, county and state level. If any of those records contain private information, it is the agency's responsibility to redact that information at no cost to you.
If the record you want is kept by a federal agency, the Freedom of Information Act (commonly called FOIA), applies, so the rules are slightly different.
For example, you might want to file a FOIA request for a family member's military records. The National Personnel Records Center holds the historical records of nearly 100 million veterans and responds to more than 1.4 million records requests each year, mostly from people wanting to prove military service or doing genealogical research. WRAL.com has a detailed breakdown of how to request those records and what's required.
2. Find out who has the record
North Carolina public records law identifies the "custodian of public records" as the person responsible for allowing access to government documents. It doesn't actually matter whether the agency created the record – if they ever received it, physically or electronically, the record was in their possession and they're the ones that have to hand it over upon request, barring a specific exemption.
In practice, public information officers employed by agencies are generally tasked with handling requests for government documents. Some agencies have employees that specifically work with record requests, but for others, the responsibility lies with a clerk, a county attorney or even an elected official.
It always helps to identify the best person to address your request to, either by visiting the agency's website or talking to someone there. A quick phone call often goes a long way toward making sure your message isn't lost.
Reporters will often call an agency before making a formal request to find out more about the records, what format they're in, how many years' worth of records are available and how long it might take to get the information.
3. Craft your request
You don't necessarily have to name a specific document – our reporters often request emails sent during a range of dates in search of a specific conversation. But try to make the request as narrow as possible.
This isn't a requirement of the law, but avoiding overly broad requests demonstrates you're making your request in good faith. There are humans on the other side of your email or phone call after all. And although responding to records requests from the public is a fundamental function of government, being considerate of the time it will take officials to gather your documents will go a long way. It can also reduce the amount of information you have to review once you get what you need.
You do not have to identify yourself or your motive for the request. But sometimes being clear about what you're looking for can help the agency more quickly identify what you need, especially if you're not sure what you're looking for.
Another tip: Make sure you specify what type of file you want – physical, digital or even specific file type in most cases. The law says you can get records "in any and all media in which the public agency is capable of providing them."
4. Submit your request
Different agencies have different preferred methods of accepting record requests. Some, like the city of Greensboro and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, want you to submit requests through an online portal. The Central Intelligence Agency accepts only fax or mail in some cases.
Email is the most common way WRAL News requests records.
But if the agency doesn't have the request process spelled out on its website, it never hurts to reach out and ask what method works best. You don't want your note to get stuck in a packed inbox if it's something that an official can provide to you quickly after a phone call or in-person visit.
In many, many cases, requesting public records takes time.
Agencies must track down documents, pulling them from offices or extracting them from databases or archiving systems. There will often be a review process used to screen for exempt information, like protected personal data, that must be redacted before release. Keep in mind too that, in many cases, your request won't be the only one in the queue.
Days, weeks, months – just how long you'll have to wait varies depending on the request. But state law requires agencies to turn over records "as promptly as possible," a standard that lacks any legally prescribed time limit.
In the world of public records, persistence is key.
Set a schedule to follow up once a week, either by phone or email. Following up takes only a few minutes, but it will let the agency know you're not going away until your request has been filled. That way, your request is less likely to fall through the cracks.
At WRAL News, our requests often include a line that specifies we want information as it's processed, meaning we will often get documents in batches. If that's the case, tracking what we have and what we're waiting for becomes even more important – we don't want to draw conclusions from an incomplete set of records.
7. Avoid paying for records
North Carolina law has very specific language about how agencies can charge the public for records. As taxpayers, we've already paid for them once, after all.
Agencies, for example, must bear the total cost of redacting anything that's mixed up with public information.
Agencies can charge for making copies, but it can't exceed the "actual cost" of creation. There's also a murky provision for a "special service charge" in cases where a request needs more technological resources.
In practice, charges for digital copies of records are fairly rare and should be treated with skepticism. If an agency asks you to pay, ask for a detailed itemization of the charges to see if they make sense – it's much easier to push back if you see how they're doing the calculation.
If the cost still appears too high, you can always discuss ways to narrow the request. You may also want to work out a way to access the files you need in person rather than generate copies, which the law allows you to do under reasonable times and supervision.
8. Try to negotiate and appeal, if necessary
If you file enough public records requests, like we do, you will eventually be told no, you can't have this record. It's frustrating, but there are ways to deal with it.
If you are denied a record, contact the agency and ask them to cite the specific exemption in the state public records law that they believe allows them to withhold that information from the public. Make sure you document and save any responses you receive from them.
If they cite an exemption but you still believe the records (or portions) should be public, call the agency and try to negotiate. Sometimes a simple phone call can help resolve any misunderstandings or confusion. If their answer is still no and they're not willing to work with you, file an appeal with the agency. If all else fails, contact a local open government expert, reporter or attorney for advice.