Research Tools

This page will have useful links for researching issues.
Our first section covers how to create an Open Records or FOIA request.  More will be added as bandwidth allows.

Introduction

Protest action is useful in bringing pressure to bear to have policies changed.   However, the actual changing of policies often depends on amending or replacing sections of existing bodies of law or regulations.  These regulations got the way they are via complicated processes involving representatives who are beholden to big contributors and armies of lobbyists and attorneys who have inserted items at the behest of special interests.

Changing the laws and regulations that are problematic requires research and investigation, to reach an understanding of what needs to be changed, how it got to be the way it is and effective monitoring of the change process to ensure that representatives are actually performing as promised.

Transparency is a requirement for good government.   This is traditionally the role of the fourth estate – the professional press.   Changes in the media corresponding to the internet era has put the traditional press under pressure, including reductions in manpower, some proclivity to pander to the existing power structure and a tendency to treat news programs as a profit center.  News has become more sensationalist as media pander to whatever will increase their advertizing revenue.   Basic fact checking is often skipped in the editorial process.  Corruption is often ignored.  At the same time, fake news has become a disturbing issue.

All these factors suggest that any social justice movement has to organize its own research and investigative capabilities.   We see this as the crowdsourcing of people’s information gathering and an essential perquisite for any campaign for social justice.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

FOIA is a federal-level law which makes most public records kept by the Federal Government, and entities that are funded by the Federal Government, available for inspection by the public.  It has its own website at FOIA.gov

The information provided may be redacted for confidential information, such as official secrets, personal and confidential data and certain other items.

In general, a FOIA request may be submitted to the ‘FOIA Compliance Officer’ at the appropriate level of government.   Generally, the FOIA Compliance Officer works in the General Counsel’s office at the lowest level of administration above the area you want information from.

Some examples:   NHTSA (National Highway Transport Safety Administration) is part of the Department of Transport (DOT).   Both of these offices have a FOIA compliance officer.

  • NHTSA: Their FOIA page has an email contact page, instructions, and addresses to snail-mail or fax requests.   NHTSA deals with transportation studies and safety regulations.
  • DOT-OST: If you are after political information, the Office of the Secretary of Transport has its own FOIA department.   The email is hard to find (foia@dot.gov) and generally you have to call to get it.

DOT does not have a standard form for FOIAs.   You’ll be invited to emai, fax or snail-mail your request and to free-format it.

Other FOIA offices have a variety of forms, electronic, paper or other, and ways to submit, but, generally, if you have a scanner and printer available you can usually send it some electronic way.

To find the FOIA compliance officer, usually a search for the department name and “FOIA compliance” will turn up the link.

The legal requirement for a FOIA response is 20 working days, but, in our experience, performance varies greatly between offices.   FOIA officers can generally stay legal by reporting every 20 days that they need more time.   We received responses from ROT-OST inside three weeks but are still waiting, after more than five months for responses or estimates of completion from NHTSA, contrary to the law.

When composing a FOIA request, specifying what you want as narrowly as possible is essential.  Casting a wide net or fishing gives the FOIA folks multiple excuses to delay or ignore your request.

  • Good example: Contract # XYZ requires the contracted party to provide annual reports. Provide an electronic copy of the report for the year ending June 30th
  • Bad example: provide electronic copies of all emails in 2016 to or from the Secretary of Transport. Email is weird.   The DOT FOIA officer and others we have corresponded with claim an inability to search archived emails for given search keys even though software to do this is widely available commercially, and a search that returns hundreds or more emails is often denied on what seems to us as doubtful grounds.

It is helpful to do your research when asking for a FOIA.   We have found that searching the existing regulations and archives can be rewarding, and, oftentimes, having a conversation with individual bureaucrats or contractors can reveal the specific name or reference number on a document of interest.

A FOIA request is often the final step in a long investigative process.

Open Records Law, Tennessee

State open records laws vary – look up your own state law.
The Tennessee Open Records Law – TCA 10-7-503 and 504 is described by Tenn. Coalition for Open Government.   It’s publication can be downloaded.  It also describes the related Open Meetings Law.

All state entities, counties, municipalities and quasi-governmental entities are covered.

Once again, there is a variety of entry methods in use, and, in general, their action is similar to the FOIA operations.   State offices usually have their “Open Records” office attached to the general counsel’s office and this usually also extends to city and county entities.

The state law provides that a response be provided in seven working days, but the request may be denied or a form saying that more time is needed nay be provided.   In our experience getting a response in seven days is a rarity.

The Tenn. Open Records Office has a .PDF list of state department open records officials and also a list of municipalities.   There’s a standard form which may be used in Tennessee, although individual offices may have other methods of entering requests.

City of Memphis has a Web application for Public Records Requests.  On first submission, you open an account via an email verification process.  This provides a login and password to their external site.   Requests may be submitted online.   Note that a copy of a driver’s license or other ID must be provided.   The Memphis Open Records Office, in our experience, is slow and, in the cases we have seen, most often non-compliant.

In Shelby County, the County Attorney’s office handles Open Records Law requests.

Useful Links

Open Records Guidelines for Tennessee

Data tools for investigators

How to protect confidential sources. .