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Tip Sheet: Government Documents Are Easier Than They Sound

The NSA is watching you…but did you know you can watch back? Wherever government goes, it leaves a paper trail of documents available to the public–and you can use these documents to expose waste or shed light on suspicious doings and fraudulent activity. Here are a few tips to help you get started in the world of government records:

Tip #1: Start Small, Local, and Easy

You’re forgiven if you think the term “government documents” sounds intimidating. After all, when the media uses the term, they’re more likely describing top-secret classified material than the minutes from the last city council meeting. But not all government records are like the Pentagon Papers: many have much more significance to you and your community than they do to CNN’s Washington bureau. And the best part is, you don’t have to be Woodward or Bernstein to find them. In many cases, all you need is an internet connection or a tank of gas.

The best place to start looking through government records is City Hall, or wherever the seat of your local government may be. In most cases, the government will publish important records online, but sometimes you’ll have to make a trip downtown to pore over paper records. Either way, these local records are a low-risk, low-cost way to get familiar with government documents.

Tip #2: Find Out What Elected Officials Are Up To

The simplest document you can ask for is an elected leader’s agenda, and from this quick request you can often make some great discoveries. Most local governments have a full-time executive whose salary is paid by taxpayers (depending on your area, this person could be an elected mayor or county executive, or an appointed “town manager” or “administrator.”) This official works for you and is paid by you–and it’s your right to know what they’re doing on your time.

If this agenda isn’t posted online, call the executive’s office and ask for a copy to be emailed to you. Look through the agenda and keep an eye out for out of town travel, meetings with power brokers or interest groups, or extended periods of time off. If the executive is taking three afternoons a week off to play golf, traveling extensively on the taxpayer’s dime, or holding publicized meetings with special interests, you have a story right there. It’s an equally good story if the executive never leaves his office at all–it’s hard to say you’re an effective leader if you’re never out in the community!

Don’t limit yourself to the local mayor. Your state’s governor should have a public schedule on his or her official website. A quick phone call should also be enough to get the schedule of your state legislators and members of Congress. Even President Obama has a public schedule–but there are thousands of writers covering him, so you’re better off sticking to the politicians in your area.

Tip #3: Take Attendance

If you missed roll call in high school, you probably got a detention, plain and simple. But when a city councilor or state legislator misses a roll call vote, not much happens unless they’re called out–and that’s something the mainstream media is not good at doing.

Roll call votes and attendance records should also be easily available, courtesy of your city or county clerk. If you find that a city councilor has missed a handful of votes, call their office and ask them to explain the absences. Knowledge of details is power–when you have government records in hand, you can ask, “Why did you miss the vote on Bill #25 on Tuesday, May 7?”, and the politician will have to give you a direct answer. Without records to back you up, a broad question about “absences” may be met with an equally broad, vague, and unfulfilling response.

Tip #4: Remember the 5 W’s (and the H)

When you’re looking over a local government record–whether it’s a roll call, minutes from a meeting, a schedule, or whatever else–think like a reporter and ask the six basic questions of journalism: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

Here are some ideas to get you started: Who was involved in this meeting? What was discussed? How much money did the state agree to spend? When was the meeting held? What councilors missed the vote? Where did the mayor travel last week?

Beginning your questions with these six words will help you train your focus on the important details of government records–and when you find the answer to one question, it often leads to two or three more.

Tip #5: Find Budgets, Audit Reports, and Other Fun Documents the Media Ignores

Think about the last time you watched your local news. There was undoubtedly coverage of weather, sports, and crime, perhaps a few human interest stories, and maybe a minute or two on local government. The anchors may have had time to say, “The mayor proposed his budget to the city council today”, or “The county auditor returned her annual report last week.” But does anyone ever discuss what’s in those budgets and audits? Sadly, the media considers this material too dense and boring for the general public’s interest.

But unless you consider government waste dense and boring, these reports are anything but. An audit report can often do much of your work for you, by taking a bright yellow highlighter to the areas of local government where waste, fraud, and abuse are occurring. And even an amateur can sift through a budget and find examples of the government spending more than it needs to. You’ll also want to look at your area’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), which includes any deficits or debts your government faces. By reading these documents–again, available online or at your local government headquarters–and writing about them, you’re doing your fellow citizens a great service that the media simply fails to do.

Tip #6: Bookmark FEC.gov Right Now

At Watchdog Wire we’re not in the business of calling government agencies our “best friends,” but if we had to pick one, we’d pick the Federal Election Commission. FEC.gov is a literal treasure trove of campaign finance documents, available for free at the click of a mouse. Every candidate for Congress–incumbents and challengers alike–must file a complete report of their campaign’s finances with the FEC every 3 months. When the FEC posts these reports online, you can see where every penny in your Congressman’s account came from–from the unions and corporations who dole out millions, to the grandmother next door who gave $5.

Click here to access the FEC’s disclosure portal, choose your state, and then select the name of a candidate from the drop-down menu. You’ll be taken to that candidate’s page, which includes links to every page of every report they’ve ever filed. The most recent set of reports were released on July 15, so there’s fresh data and hundreds of stories waiting to be told!

Tip #7: Know How to Use FOIA–And When You Don’t Need To

Here’s a great tip sheet from Watchdog Wire’s Mary Ellen Beatty on how to use your state’s open records law to your advantage. When you’re digging deeper into government waste, often you’ll have to make a FOIA request before you can get your hands on the documents you need.

However, the basic documents we’ve mentioned here almost never require a FOIA request–they’re readily available, often online!

Tip #8: Be Persistent and Keep Asking Questions!

Even the most mundane of government documents, in the right hands, can lead to a great story. But that doesn’t mean just anyone can turn city council records into a viral investigation overnight–it takes hard work, a sharp eye for detail, and a creative, inquisitive mind. And most of all, it takes persistence! The government doesn’t like being investigated any more than, well, you probably like the NSA spying on you. If you encounter resistance, keep digging until you get the answer you’re looking for–you are always entitled to the truth, no matter how difficult it is to find.

Best of luck! And remember, if you run into trouble, the team at Watchdog Wire is always here to help!

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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