Yesterday, I offered up the first tip in this series which was to know the law as it pertains to open records. Today we talk about something I learned early in my open records efforts: be specific. This is the second piece in our effort the build the perfect open records request.
Specificity is one of the major keys to getting the information you want in a timely and efficient manner. In yesterday’s discussion, one of the reasons to “know the law” was the be able to avoid any loopholes that may allow the agency you are requesting information to avoid your request. Not being specific is one of those loopholes.
Here are some items you want to be specific about in your request:
- The document you want. This can not be stressed enough. If you know the exact name of the document you want, this is the best way to approach a request for information. If not, be as specific in describing the information you want. For instance, it would be ideal to request “the check register outlining expenses by vendor, date, amount, and description for the 2009 and 2010 accounting years” rather than asking for “records of money spent”. The result of the latter will almost always be denied as the request is not specific enough.
- Format. This is important especially if you are requesting large amounts of data. In my experience, it is always best to ask for an electronic copy of the document. Contracts, spending data, and requests that span a long period of time can be quite voluminous and trust me, you do not want to get a box of paper copies in the mail. The virtues of electronic copies will be discussed in a future post. If you want a document in Excel, CSV, paper, etc… make sure you specify this in your initial request. Agencies are not required to create a new document for you but if they have it in the format you want, they are required to provide that to you…so it can’t hurt, right?
- The statute that gives you the right to inspection. As discussed in a previous post, it’s a great idea to cite the statute that grants you the authority in your request. A lot of workers may not be familiar with the law as it pertains to open records and providing them with the statute you are operating within goes a long way towards a timely and effective response.