Some tools to add to your public records toolbox
New Mexico's public records laws, contained within the context of the state's Inspection of Public Records Act, are fairly strong, especially when it comes to setting deadlines.
They contain provisions that call for an agency's records custodian to allow inspection of records “immediately or as soon as practicable under the circumstances, but not later than fifteen [calendar] days after receiving a written request.,” according to New Mexico Freedom of Government's public records FAQ.
Furthermore, if three business days have passed without viewing records responsive to the request, the agency's records custodian “shall explain in writing when the records will be available for inspection or when the public body will respond to the request.”
However, within these “muscular” laws there is room for agencies to improve response and enforcement of the IPRA.
One area for improvement is reliance on the determination that a public records request is "excessively burdensome or broad" which allows an agency additional time to respond.
How long? The law states a "reasonable period of time."
The ambiguous deadline factored into New Mexico receiving a failing grade in a 2015 Center for Public Integrity analysis:
...there is no hard deadline to produce records, and the attorney general’s office (which provides legal representation to public bodies) historically hasn’t made enforcement a priority. The AG’s office rarely levies fines, instead relying on members of the public to hire lawyers and sue. And so the government can effectively skirt the law simply by repeatedly ignoring requesters and delaying their responses.
As journalists, the public records requests we craft can play a role in how well agencies respond. With clear, focused and researched requests, we can maximize the return on our time and minimize potential delays after a request is filed.
Do your homework
Often, as journalists we get a hunch and we set out to find records and information related to that hunch. Sadly, hunches don't often allow for planning. But if we take one or two extra steps prior to filing a records request on the front-end, we can possibly avoid that back-and-forth conversation about whether records responsive to your request are available.
Reach out to officials, the records custodian — or even better — someone who compiles and works with the information you seek. They will have an intimate knowledge of what is available, the jargon or technical terms used to describe records internally. The conversation may lead to insight that shows what you seek is something else entirely.
Requests the requests
Finding a person to talk to — or someone who will return your phone calls or emails — can be challenging. Consider adding this tool to your reporting kit: Requesting IPRA requests over the last 30 or 60 days.
Within this request for requests, ask for who requested and whether or not the request has been fulfilled.
While this technique may not work in deadline-driven situations — it doesn't provide immediate information after all — it can reveal some patterns that will inform your approach going forward and lead to other reporting opportunities.
Another similar request is to ask for the records retention schedule for a particular agency. These documents not only can shed light on how long an agency keeps records. But more important for our purposes, it should list what kinds of records it keeps.
Find The Forms
When crafting a records request — especially for data — I try to find any forms or applications that match what I am looking for. The form gives me a starting point for my request.
Whether paper or online, these documents provide insight into some of the data entered into a system or database or stored in a filing cabinet somewhere.
When it comes to online forms, you have the various fields filled out right there in front of you.
Suddenly, I know the names of potential fields and how they might be stored. For instance, is it a checkbox with particular values or free-form text? These are data points captured somewhere and could be what you need for your request.
Maybe an agency calls it a data dictionary, or to some it's a record layout or data schema. These terms all mean roughly the same thing when it comes to requesting data. We're interested in these records because it gives us the data about the data — the metadata.
Specific to data requests, this document might contain how the data is collected, the steps in the collection process, how it's stored and how often it's updated, the expected values and perhaps even a bit about what the data can show.
So, what does this look like in the real world? This is a particularly helpful example of what you should expect?
Demand Electronic Files
When filing a request, specify you want to receive electronic records. In the case of requests for data, I want comma-separated or Excel files. In fact, spell out the file extension: "Please provide electronic copies of the records in a .csv, .xls or .txt format via email."
Asking for a written explanation that explains why digital copies are not available remains a good practice as well. It also helps to have a plan to deal with any PDFs of records or data that may arrive.
Work In Public
Sharing data and information and showing your work wherever possible is an ethos for many in the data journalism and public records journalism world. The motto essentially is "Compete on stories, not on data."
Certainly, the powers that be may frown upon this kind of information collaboration; ask forgiveness not permission may not fly in many legacy news organizations. But if the future of news is local, there is work to do to ensure there is a future with news.
When news organizations work together to raise public awareness, we all benefit.
This is by no means exhaustive. But it provides a starting point for journalists of all experience levels as we aim to shed light on what our public employees and elected and appointed officials do on behalf of the public.
Surely you have tips and tricks you have used over the years. We'd love to hear them. Please share in the comments.