Friday, February 21, 2014

FOIA Friday: tracking requests

If you are trying to find out information about an issue or a project using the Freedom of Information Act, you'll need to prepare yourself for delays. Some of these delays are foreseeable and you just need to be ready to wait things out as they grind slowly through the municipal bureaucracy. Other issues can be prevented with some careful preparation.

One thing is certain, though - unlike Internet search engines which have response times measured in milliseconds, you'll have to wait days, maybe weeks, for a response. Here's some suggestions on how to track requests as they go out so that nothing gets lost in the shuffle.

Photo: Muckrock
1. Track receipt of your first message. Some public bodies (like the Ann Arbor City Clerk) have automated acknowledgements that your email message was received. In other cases, you might have to call the clerk to get them to admit that they got your message. If the request is really important, you can use the postal system and ask for a return receipt, or walk your request into the front desk of the public body and hand it in in person.

One good reason for tracking the first message in the process carefully is that if it gets delayed your entire process can be slowed down. Beware of the agency email system that marks your request as "spam" for no good reason, or for the online form that sends email to someone who is on vacation. Once the initial request is acknowledged, the clock starts ticking for the public agency.

2. Use a spreadsheet to track your requests. The simplest possible spreadsheet keeps track of what you sent, who you sent it to, when you sent it and (crucially) the date when you can expect a response. To do this right you'll need to stay on top of legal requirements for replies (5 business days for first response in Michigan, with an optional 10 day extension). Keep track of government holidays when you do this so you don't assume that responses are overly late, and realize that many places start the clock ticking the next day for a request received by email today.

3. Use a calendar to track your requests. I'll put a reminder in my Google Calendar to anticipate a response on a certain date, so that I can know just when I might be able to write about the results.

4. Use a FOIA tracking service like MuckRock to file your requests. MuckRock helps you address and format a request, and includes helpful boilerplate language and templates for some common requests to speed you along. More importantly their software knows what the deadlines are in various jurisdictions and keeps track right on the request whether the response is overdue.

5. Fire and forget. If you're sending out so many requests that you always have at least one in flight at all times, you might not need to track requests. The clerk will know your name, will be familiar with your requests, and will give them the prompt handling (or the delays) that they deserve. Your goal is simply to be pleasantly surprised when your inbox includes a document dump that you asked for weeks ago and that you have partially forgotten about.

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