State agencies and local governments in Michigan are required to provide records, with some exceptions, to members of the public when they ask for them, thanks to the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which turned 40 this year.
David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism says FOIA laws continue to be vital to citizens’ ability to know what governments are doing.
“The information that is really helpful for the public to know is often really difficult to get,” says Cuillier, who authored the book “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.”
His biggest tip for using the law? Go ask for something!
Click on the audio above to hear their edited conversation. Here’s a transcript:
Sandra Svoboda: Why do these Freedom of Information laws continue to be important?
David Cuillier: They are important because they’re the only legal recourse anyone has to force government to give up information.
Svoboda: As you look across the country in general, how are cities, villages, townships — handling FOIA?
Cuillier: It really varies. Some are doing a great job. There are pockets around the country that are making it really accessible to the average person, thinking from the average person’s perspective. They don’t even talk about ‘FOIA’ because most people don’t even know what that is. They talk about how to get a police report from your neighborhood or how to get information about environmental issues or what not. And they’re doing it pro-actively. But for the most part I think most government jurisdictions make it really difficult for the average person to access the information they’re entitled to and that’s really unfortunate. I think we need to really work harder on it. It take resources, and it takes commitment.
Svoboda: For someone who has never used the Freedom of Information At, what are your basic steps in how they use it to look up something in their own community?
Cuillier: It’s really just pretty simple: Go ask for it. It could be a verbal request. It doesn’t even have to be written. They’ll likely make you fill out a form, that’s OK. They’ve got to keep a record of who’s asking for what and how to get back to you. Hopefully they’ll get back to you soon and give you the information.
Svoboda: You’ve used and researched Freedom of Information laws for several year that allow citizens and journalists to get access to public records. How have you seen the process change with the advent of the internet?
Cuillier: You would think the Internet has made it a lot better, and it has in some ways but in a lot of ways it’s made it worse. A lot of government agencies fall back on the position of ‘Look, we put all this data out there.’ The White House did this under Obama for many years. ‘Look how open we are and transparent.’ But for the most part the information wasn’t really that useful to the average person and the information that is really helpful for the public to know often is really difficult to get. It tends to be the records the journalists are going after to hold government accountable, and of course government folks often don’t want that make public because it could get them fired. So it’s still a tussle. It should be a lot better. It should be simple to acquire whatever you want and it should be pro-active. Really everything’s electronic now, more or less, and every record that’s created by the government should be automatically put online in some kind of system that’s easily retrieved with appropriate redactions for information that shouldn’t be public automatically made. That can be done. Maybe some day we’ll get there.