If you’ve ever had to deal with a government agency that tried to withhold public documents from you, check out Steve Myers’ interview with one of the authors of a new book and blog, The Art of Access.
Instead of focusing on the intricacies of open-records laws, David Cuillier and Charles Davis write about the social dynamics between people who ask for records, and the gatekeepers who decide whether to release them. Cuillier says:
It’s crucial to understand the constraints agencies work under to be more effective in getting what you need. Those folks don’t come to work with horns and cloven hooves. There is a whole bureaucratic world that thinks differently than requesters. Understand that world, and you’ll navigate around it much better.
One technique the pair discuss on their blog is checking the job postings at government agencies to understand the agency’s attitude towards open government.
By coincidence, the same week I learned about this open-records blog, there was local news about BexarMet’s ousted gatekeeper T.J. Connolly, who pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations. We had written many stories about Connolly, one of which detailed his efforts to delay an open-records request at BexarMet. “I want to be as uncooperative as possible … without being obvious,” Connolly wrote to BexarMet officials.
How did we learn about these stonewalling tactics? After Connolly and his supporters left the agency, we asked for their e-mails under the Texas Public Information Act. Under the new leadership at BexarMet, the agency was eager to appear more open, and handed over thousands of e-mails.
So the authors of The Art of Access are making a very important point: The culture of an agency plays a huge part in determining how much access you get.