Citizen Investigations
Chapter 7
Digging Into Government Records

Investigating Governments

Investigating governments and their actions is a vast challenge.  There are tools to use, but the best place to begin is self-education about how things work in theory and practice. Whatever the investigatory goal, success will be enhanced through fundamental knowledge of how government works. What you learned in school may lay the foundation for the mechanics of how government works. But how things work in the real world may be different. So get to know your topic by reading and finding knowledgeable helpers.

Here are some basic areas to think about:

  • laws and regulations related to your subject;
  • background history;
  • bureaucratic structure;
  • decision-making processes;
  • officials involved inside; 
  • “stakeholders” outside;
  • publications of record;
  • official documents, such as budgets, procurement, and financial records, and more.

If it sounds like a lot, well, pick and choose, but these generalizations can help with visualizing the government ecosystem.

Activists Use Indian RTI Law to Get Documents
In India, so-called RTI activists use the Right to Information Act to make all sorts of discoveries. Shakeel Ahmed Sheikh obtained data on how many people died because of overhead train wires. Neeraj Sharma found out that the government was spending more on public relations than was previously known. Bhimappa Gadad revealed the private misappropriation of 51 acres of government land.

Who Is Involved?

Who is influential in the subject area you are concerned about? 

Consider not only elected officials, but also who else might be part of the equation, including:

  • bureaucrats; 
  • special interest group representatives; 
  • civic leaders; 
  • business community leaders;
  • subject experts;
  • academics, etc.

The website everypolitician.org tries to list elected politicians worldwide, but local knowledge is likely to be more complete.

Read news about the relevant government bodies, their activities, their leaders, etc. Pay attention to names mentioned. Knowing who has opinions on the topic is key to locating people to contact for information. 

Also ask yourself questions such as:

  • Who is most affected? 
  • Who cares the most?
  • Who else might be interested in my topic?

Gathering such information will result in a valuable “map” that will help your investigation.

Online and Offline

Although an obvious starting point will be online searching, this may well turn out to be insufficient. 

For all the modern emphasis placed on internet research and government transparency, what you want to know just may not be online. 

Searching the websites of government agencies is necessary, but it may not be enlightening. 

Person-to-person contact remains a staple of investigation.

Go to meetings. Observing who attends and how the body works can be unexpectedly rewarding. 

Try to locate the person in the government who knows the most about your subject. Burrow down to find an expert at the lower levels. Ask the workers. Government communications officers may respond more readily to media questions, but it doesn’t hurt to try. 

Outside of government, there are often groups which may share something of your interest and have information, or leads.

Always ask open-ended questions for advice such as, “What else could I read?” or “Who else should I talk with?”

The specifics of your investigation obviously will dictate the direction of research. 

If you hit dead-ends, resourcefulness and doggedness may be the best play, but there are some legal tools that can be helpful to crack open government information.

NYC Citizen Becomes Watchdog
New Yorker Aaron Carr “did not start out as a tenant activist,” explained The New York Times. But after being sensitized to tenant grievances he developed a “bottom-up enforcement approach” of scrutinizing public records, eventually creating a small but effective watchdog group.

Access to Information Laws

More than 125 countries have freedom of information (FOI) laws giving citizens the right to seek government documents. These laws provide formal mechanisms to request documents and appeal denials. 

This road can be long and frustrating, but ultimately fruitful. Despite mythology that FOI is mainly for journalists, citizens are the major users.

GIJN’s FOI Resource Center includes lots of practical suggestions and country-by-country information. 

We reviewed the advice from dozens of FOI experts and boiled down their tips.

GIJN’s 8 Top Tips

  1. Plan ahead: Figure out what you want. All experienced requesters stress the value of doing advance research.
  2. Poke around: Try other avenues. Ask for the information informally and pursue alternative sources before going down the official road.
  3. Plot: Understand where the information is located. It’s important to know not only what you’re looking for, but where it’s located within the government.
  4. Prepare: Learn about the law. Study the access law you will be using. For example: What fees might be involved? What’s the timeframe for answers? What are your rights?
  5. Pose precise questions (to the right place). All experienced requesters stress the value of asking clear questions. Ambiguity can work against you. Asking focused questions can speed up the processing of the request. Some experts prefer a series of small requests to a big conglomerate request. “Give me everything” queries have their place, but are not the most effective or efficient requests. “Why” questions won’t work. Translate your interests into precise questions. So, instead of asking “What does the director do?” state: “Please provide the job description of the director.”
  6. Play the game: Following up pays dividends. Don’t just sit by and wait while a request is being processed. Stay in contact with the responsible officials, being friendly if possible. Patience and persistence are necessary, and perhaps negotiation.
  7. Appeal: Do it. Denials are common, so be prepared. Appealing is recommended, even if you don’t (or can’t) litigate.
  8. Publish: Don’t be shy. Write about your requests from the beginning. Win or lose, report on the outcome.

Open Data

More and more governments are making their data “open.” 

This means that you may be able to search databases about government operations such as pollution, arrests, property assessments, code violations, official salaries, school attendance, and many other subjects. 

To help make this easier, some NGOs have created searchable databases. But you may need a geeky friend.

If the data isn’t already posted online, ask for it. Data is covered by FOI laws. 

Follow the Money

How governments spend money may be a part of what you want to know, but in many countries this information is difficult to find.

One preliminary step is to look for the budget documents in which the government reveals its spending plans and for documents disclosing actual spending. 

These may or may not be adequately detailed. Assume there is more to find out. A FOI request may be necessary.

There’s a paper trail you can follow to document government contracting and purchases. Governments buy goods and hire contractors to perform many operations. And as noted above, groups may be collecting such information. For example, ELVIS gathers contracts from Eastern Europe.

How much is disclosed will vary substantially by country, notwithstanding the growing international pressure for governments to disclose contract documents. A FOI request may be called for eventually.

There may be officials charged with conducting audits or investigations into government spending. Their reports may be available.

Building Your Own Database 

Increasingly, citizen groups have used mobile phones and social media to gather information about whether and how money was spent. For example, by monitoring how many new schoolbooks were really purchased.

This perspective, proactively collecting information, may produce some of the most effective results.