10 Tips for Dealing with Excessive Public Records Requesters and the Media
If you’ve worked in FOIA for any length of time, you are probably (painfully) aware of the handywork of excessive records requesters, otherwise known as vexatious or serial requesters. These are the people who have learned they can submit an unlimited number of records requests to government agencies each day. Excessive requesters can make the job of being a records officer very challenging. Even though their pursuits only account for 10% of overall requests to a given entity, the urgent and sensitive nature of their petitions make managing them a particularly overwhelming aspect of the job.
For that reason, it’s important to be prepared to handle them (so they don’t handle you).
Cindi Mansell — veteran records manager — broke down 10 time-tested tips to help you deal with excessive public records requesters and the media. Cindi was employed by municipal government for over 30 years in the planning and city recorder realms. Until her retirement in the Spring of 2020, she administered the Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) program for the Salt Lake City corporation where she managed approximately 15,000 records requests annually. She served on the Utah State Records Committee from 2015 to 2019 and remains a master municipal clerk and certified records manager.
Tip 1: Consider legislative changes.
Each state or governing entity has varying policies, procedures, or laws that govern the release of information and records. Most states have fees associated with the release of some records to curtail excessive requests. In Utah, for example, the first 15 minutes of research conducted by a records officer was free until legislation was changed to allow agencies to charge for the first 15 minutes of fulfillment work if the requester has submitted a request within the previous 10 days. The intent is not to make it difficult for requesters, but rather to discourage individuals (or entities) from monopolizing the time and resources of records officers.
Tip 2: Request additional time.
A common tactic among excessive requesters is to submit multiple requests at once. The best defense, in this case, is to fulfill requests in the order in which they were submitted. With this method, the clock restarts with each request, giving you a bit more wiggle room. If the requester can’t benefit from the bulk approach, they are less likely to submit multiple requests (at once) in the future. This is where software can be a lifesaver. Our public records management solution simplifies the intake process with smart, automated workflows that make effortless responses a reality. Duplicate requests are automatically identified so you can work them together for better efficiency and response consistency.
Tip 3: Learn from other agencies in your state.
Another common type of excessive requester is one who submits the same request to every single entity in your state. Cindi dealt with this kind of requester in Utah; one volatile, demanding person was the cause of frenzy and backlog across the state. The silver lining, however, was that this instance prompted records officers across the state to unite to discuss best practices related to FOIA requests, details, timing, and processes, which ultimately improved the way the agencies functioned. This helped make all agencies less vulnerable to that type of offender in the future.
Tip 4: Establish a media policy.
To help everyone in your organization understand how to manage media requests, work with them to develop a media policy that’s distinct from how traditional records requests are handled. Records requests from media outlets are typically more time-sensitive, so be sure to account for their prioritization in your policy, including relevant contact information. Also, promote staff training to ensure that your employees are aware of and understand the importance of your media process.
Tip 5: Have an escalation process.
In Cindi’s 30 years of experience, she found that the average excessive requester was often a conspiracy theorist, a person who was suspicious of government, a criminal offender, or a political fanatic. Many members of the media pursue records requests to spark an idea for a new story angle or to fill out an existing story. Both types were often aggressive and/or volatile, so it’s helpful to have an escalation process — like being forwarded to a legal team, for example. This is another place where software can save the day. With our public records software, you can streamline collaboration with precise assignment and escalation parameters. An escalation process should also be included in your media policy, by the way.
Tip 6: Have a media spokesperson.
Another key element of a media policy is designating a spokesperson. Having a trained spokesperson in place is a smart provision that could prevent the likelihood of damage to your entity’s reputation. The designated spokesperson should work to develop trust with the media early on. When asked for a statement to accompany a records response, Cindi’s team knew to say, “According to our policy, I can’t make a statement, but I can direct you to our media spokesperson,” instead of saying something that might be given a negative spin.
Tip 7: Be forthright and consistent (don’t play games).
The media often deals with agencies that are downright evasive, but that approach can backfire quickly. Cindi’s experience on the advisory board of a group of Utah journalists gave her insight into the way they think. When journalists receive inadequate responses, denials, or no response at all, they consider it a red flag worthy of further investigation. They are trained to appeal early and aggressively, so evasive behavior only makes matters worse. Look for ways to provide better records to members of the media to build a better rapport and foster trust. Discuss realistic and achievable time frames. The media appreciates transparency and transparency builds trust. When the media trusts you, they are more likely to be more lenient and understanding with deadlines and less likely to put a negative spin on the data you provide.
You should also be consistent in your responses. Often, you’ll get multiple — but separate — requests on the same subject. Be consistent. If discrepancies in your responses are discovered, it could damage your agency’s reputation by looking like you have something to hide. Software can help here, too. With our public records software, an automated intake process immediately identifies duplicate requests so they can be worked together for better efficiency and response consistency.
Tip 8: Keep a production log.
To avoid inconsistencies in the data you provide, keep a production log of all the data supplied. Tracking this information manually is possible, but stressful and difficult to do well. It’s even more difficult to share with everyone involved. This is yet another area where software can be a lifesaver. Our public records management solution simplifies the intake process, secure collaboration, and compliance with all internal and external parties.
Tip 9: Educate customers about self-service.
Tell your customers about available information sources online. The more information you make them aware of, the less you have to provide. Our software includes automatic deflection for redundant requests. The system will automatically suggest previous responses or open data that may resolve the current request. There’s even a way for customers to login to see the status of their request on their own.
Tip 10: Review the media’s trusted information sources.
Some states have media groups that produce resources for how to use government records to their advantage — the Utah Investigative Journalism Project’s Almanac, for example. The Almanac includes basics on how and why to file a public records request including processes, tips about fees, and other valuable information. Cindi recommends reading materials like these to have a better understanding of how records officers are regarded and approached by journalists.
The reality is: no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to completely stop excessive requesters. The best advice is to develop a process — or implement software — to help you manage them. Excessive requesters are challenging, and the media is the savviest of the bunch, so you must be sharp when responding to them. Be prepared. Have a well-defined internal procedure in place. If your organization is adequately prepared to respond, you’ll have a stress-free, capable staff and favorable media coverage that spreads your message accurately and contributes to the public’s trust in government.
If you’d like to learn more about how to deal with excessive FOIA requesters and the media, watch this free webinar now.