Last August, with support from the Online News Association, we partnered with the Engagement Lab at Emerson College and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism to explore new ways of teaching public records to students and the broader community.
Five workshops, four articles, and a hundred public records requests later, our partners at the Engagement Lab have put together a new website, Make FOIA Work, and downloadable guide on what we’ve learned, ideas to make Freedom of Information work more exciting and accessible, and a blueprint for others to build on.
Part of what made this project so exciting for us was that it tackled public records from a very different perspective than we usually see. Instead of the focus being on exemptions, appeals, and the tradecraft of requesting, we instead spent a lot of time talking with the public about what they wanted to see out of their government — and then helped them get answers.
User-centered design was at the heart of the entire project, from talking with people about what issues they cared about to help develop the project’s focus on gun purchasing and campaign financing to participatory workshops that invited people to file their first requests or help sift through documents that lay at the heart of the project.
This is not to say that traditional FOIA skills are not important. The ability to fight against misapplied public records exemptions and knowing what to request are essential to making Freedom of Information laws useful. But as a transparency community, we need to continue to broaden who public records laws help and find new ways for everyone see the value of open government.
The process we undertook with this project was a fantastic opportunity to experiment with new approaches, from FOIA-a-thons and public workshops to our Transparency Science Fair. We’re excited to continue building on what we’ve learned, and we’ll be talking more about the process at this year’s Online News Association conference. In the meantime, read all about the process below and at MakeFOIA.Work.
Interested in exploring new ways to bring public records to your community? We’d love to help — just get in touch.
Image via Emerson Engagement Lab.