Research Tips – Calling Public Officials

One of our goals at RAGEPATH is to provide you with the tools necessary to examine the record of public officials for yourself. Often times, that involves requesting public records maintained by government agencies. Usually, such requests are best begun in writing, using the old-fashioned mail. But often times, it becomes necessary to follow up on the phone. Sometimes a phone call is the best way to figure out where to direct a request.

The following is a brief tip sheet for calling up public officials to request information about public records that you have previously requested or are trying to locate. We expect to generate more tip sheets similar to this as time goes on.

Tips And Tools For Calling Public Officials

It’s Scary Until You Start!  I’ve been doing research for years, and I still find it daunting to pick up the phone and start asking for documents.  It’s very normal to feel some apprehension before you start calling people up.  Resist the temptation to procrastinate. There’s always something more urgent and easier that you can do – so at some point, just make the time to get it done.

Study Up Before You Call And Know What You Want.  The person you’ll be talking to is usually a specialist. You don’t have to match their expertise, but you need to understand before you call:  What am I asking for?  How is it described?  If you know what you want, they will usually be required to provide it to you. They don’t have to help you figure out what you’re looking for.

Consolidate Your Requests.  If you’re going to need six things from a person, they’d rather get one call than six.  If you have to call someone, check to see if there are any other records on file that you might want to ask about (expired permits that might need verification or aren’t on file).

Prioritize Your Requests And Go Through Them In Order.  When you’re in a discussion, start with the most urgent items first.  Then do the easiest items.  Save the most confusing cases for last.  People run out of patience at different rates – you want to get as much as possible as quickly as possible.

Be Nice, Not Weak.  Most of the time, people will be very helpful from the very outset.  So be as friendly as possible and use words like “please” and “thank you” a lot.  But don’t forget that the information you’re requesting is a public record and the person on the other end of the line is usually required to provide it.  Don’t let them push you around – if they try it, make it clear that you are entitled to the information you’re seeking and you expect to receive it.

Document Every Phone Call.  When you’re on the phone, write down anything important that someone tells you. Memory is short and unreliable. I strongly recommend using paper notes – it doesn’t make the clicking sound that typed notes do (which can intimidate some people) and there’s a risk of getting buried in too many computer windows.

Explain What You Were Told And When You Were Told It.  When writing emails and letters or leaving voicemails, always explain your understanding of the previous conversation you are following up on.  Tell them when you had the conversation, and tell them what they told you.

Be Mindful Of Personality And Cultural Differences.  America’s a big place and there are a lot of different sub-cultures in it.  If you are dealing with a public official who lives in a different part of the country than you, be mindful that they may have very different ways of speaking. If someone strikes you as brusque or terse or overly chatty, your perceptions may stem from cultural differences rather than any unfriendliness or desire not to cooperate with you.  Recognize that people have different communication styles and be mindful of that when speaking with them.

Be Persistent!  Sometimes government bureaucrats are lazy – they’ll promise the moon while they sit on their hands.  But they will work if you keep calling them up, if only to make you go away.  If you don’t follow up, they’ll usually forget about you.

Dealing With The Trickier Cases – (These are rare!)

Never Come Away Empty-Handed.  Even if someone can’t provide the information you’re looking for, they can usually provide some kind of helpful information.  If they can’t help you themselves, get a referral or a name of someone who can.  Once someone starts helping you, they’ll usually feel some obligation to finish the job, so if you run into a roadblock later, you can come back to the person and explain how the help they provided turned out to be insufficient.  Once you win someone over, you have an ally inside the organization who can often be much more effective than you can.

Never Get Angry, Never Get Personal.  From time to time, you’re bound to run into a very difficult person.  Incompetence, malice, or even rudeness can get under your skin.  If you feel your temper rising, don’t take it out over the phone or in an email. Don’t get into a discussion about your feelings or about another person’s character.  Take the focus back to the facts – explain what are you asking for, why you are entitled to it, and what obstacles have been thrown in your way.  Once you’ve explained the problem, ask them to come up with a solution.

Don’t Make Threats.  If someone isn’t giving you what you need, don’t make threats about lawyers or supervisors or future consequences.  It can help to explain the problem to them and ask them to recommend taking the “next step.”  (Example:  It is my understanding that you cannot or will not provide me with this document, but it is my understanding that the open records law entitles me to it.  Can your agency’s general counsel help us figure this situation out?)

Think Before You Escalate.  With enough patience and enough persistence, almost any problem can be solved.  Sometimes that may involve going up someone else’s chain of command – speaking with a supervisor or a friendlier person in a related department.  Before you do that, take a step back and assess how far you are really prepared to go.  Getting what you want today could make it harder for yourself or others down the road.  You should make an informed decision about costs and benefits before things go too far.