How do I access government information?

QUESTION: What are some tips on using freedom of information to access government data and what specific kinds of records should I be asking for?

Answer by investigative reporter Fred

ANSWER: There is no question that freedom of information legislation can be an important tool for an investigative journalist.

What you would ask for would be driven by the particular area you are investigating, so it is difficult to identify, in a generic way, the kind of records you would go after.

That said, there are certainly classes of records that can play an important role in investigative work.
One of the things investigative journalists use FOI for is to find records that corroborate information provided to them by other sources.  So if you’ve been told that an audit was done of an agency that showed spending irregularities, you want to ask for the audit.

Speaking of money, records that document how money is spent are frequently requested by investigative journalists because keeping agencies accountable for the way they spend money is such a big part of this kind of reporting.

If your investigation involves any area that is subject to inspection or regulatory oversight by government, make sure you ask for any related reports or data. This is true whether you are investigating the inspectors or the inspected. These records are usually available, and there is usually a significant public interest in releasing them.

Another class of records investigators often go after is anything that explains how an agency is supposed to do its work, or better yet, how it’s actually performing. Governments are constantly doing internal assessments of programs, or at least they should be. The lack of any such internal reporting could be a story in itself.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Again, the important thing is to know what you want. Explore what is already on the public record, in newspapers or online, and read every public document that seems relevant. These sources will give you a sense of what kind of work is being done and what other kinds of records might exist.

Similarly, ask people you interview what records exist that you should obtain. Do this especially with critics such as pressure groups or former insiders. These people can often give you a roadmap as to what documents you should obtain.

Of course, make sure to ask for it informally before filing a request; you might save a lot of time.
Actually filing the request is a matter of writing a letter or filling out a form (Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland legislation requires the use of forms).  Be as specific as you can about what you want while being as general as you need to be to get what you need; make it too general and you risk delay or stiff fees, too specific and you risk missing records you might want. Avoid listing specific types of records (memos, etc) in a generic request as you are liable to leave out something you might want. A good, initial step is to call the FOI coordinator for the agency and have an exploratory discussion about the records that might exist.

Once you file, be sure to keep on top of deadlines such as the statutory time for a response (usually 30 days). The minute a deadline passed without the agency doing what it should have done, call the coordinator. The squeaky wheel definitely can get a little extra grease in this field.

Happy hunting!

Fred Vallance-Jones is an award-winning investigative reporter who teaches at King’s College School of Journalism in Halifax. He is co-author of Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide.