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You’re Entitled to Government Transparency

Public records laws and enforcement aren’t perfect. Your demand for improving them matters.

This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

Editors and reporters from learning newsroom Real Chi focus on covering Chicago’s West Side. (Vignesh Ramachandran/ProPublica Illinois)

This week, we got together with young reporters and editors from Real Chi — a learning newsroom that covers Chicago’s West Side — to discuss Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and answer questions about how their team could use public records to inform their reporting.

We’ve already filed a few thousand public records requests across our Illinois newsroom. Public records have played a role in almost all of our stories — including reporter Jodi S. Cohen’s recent piece about medical research misconduct at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where documents revealed how negligence and noncompliance put children at risk. Since Real Chi’s reporting covers a specific part of the city, we enjoyed the opportunity to talk about public records on a hyperlocal scale.

Here are some tips based on our conversation with Real Chi:

  • First, the information might already be out there: You may not need a FOIA at all. Some records are already ripe for picking on city/county/state websites or data portals (here is Illinois’ portal). In Real Chi’s case, published datasets such as landlord complaints, local business licenses or 311 data might be particularly relevant to their beat coverage. But if it’s not already accessible, check out data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati’s tip sheet on how you can directly ask for information.
  • Pick from the buffet of records: Many public agencies are required to keep what they call record retention schedules. That means you could ask for this list of all data an agency collects and then specify exactly what you need in your request.
  • Call, don’t just write: While it’s best to file a written request — either digitally or by snail mail — immediately follow up with a phone call. Email is too easy to ignore. Your voice (or showing up in person) isn’t. Being persistent — or some would say annoying — often pays off.
  • Keep a paper trail: Keep a record log of your requests — the dates you send your inquiries, when you follow up, your back-and-forth conversations and who you talk to. A paper trail could come in handy if you ever are denied and want to file an appeal with the public access counselor at the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
  • Persist and be curious: If a number in a report, unexplained detail in a story or a tidbit someone says to you stands out, it’s likely worth digging. Reporter Jason Grotto characterizes persistence with a “pain-to-payoff ratio,” how much effort it takes versus what you’ll get.

Like Real Chi and us, you, too, can request public records about what government is doing in your community — if that’s getting the new development permit for the lot down the street, finding out whether your representatives are paying their taxes or digging into what your local schools are spending money on.

Because we have to demand transparency to get it.

Our active use of Illinois FOIA and our scrutiny of its enforcement is just beginning. If you’ve got something to say about the FOIA experiences in your life, email us at [email protected].

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Portrait of Vignesh Ramachandran

Vignesh Ramachandran

Vignesh Ramachandran is a former story producer at ProPublica, where he focused on digital production, visual storytelling, design and editorial workflow.

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