How we used an FOI project to show the public the power they can wield
Secret Canada is an investigation and a public-service teaching tool. Resources for record requests can inspire your readers too
There’s a certain feeling I get when I file freedom-of-information (FOI) requests. It’s similar to how I feel at the DMV, perhaps, or at the passport renewal office–the feeling that a dispassionate, confusing bureaucracy is standing purposefully between me and the thing I want.
The FOI process has become so predictable that my internal monologue lately can be distilled into just five steps.
First, there’s Denial: “Do I really need to file this FOI? Maybe I could just speak with a source instead?” Then comes Anger: “There’s a fee? And you only take checks?!”. Next up is Bargaining: “Listen, I know you want to apply redactions to this memo. But the law doesn’t require it…” Then it’s Depression: “Is there even anything left that hasn’t been redacted?” Finally, you reach Acceptance: “Skedline: According to documents obtained through a freedom of information request…”
The FOI vibes, in other words, are not good.
In Canada, a country of 40 million people, we have 14 separate FOI regimes, each with their own legislation: one for each of our 13 provinces and territories (Canada’s equivalents to states), plus a separate regime for the federal government. Yet, in virtually every jurisdiction, the story is the same. Public bodies routinely take months (or years) to respond to requests, public servants apply redactions liberally, and the system has little incentive to provide journalists, academics, researchers, activists and citizens with the records they’ve asked for.
At The Globe and Mail–a national newspaper in Canada where I work as an investigative reporter–we decided to tackle this unease head-on. In 2022, my reporting partner Robyn Doolittle and I launched an investigation of Canada’s broken FOI systems, dubbed “Secret Canada.”
In part, Secret Canada is an investigation in which we have explored the overall culture of opacity that has captured public bodies; how the federal immigration system has become utterly reliant on FOIs in a way that threatens both with collapse; a tiny province that has found a way out of the information morass; the ideas Canada could borrow from other jurisdictions; and much, much more. Our reporting is ongoing.
But Secret Canada is also a civic project that we hope other newsrooms will replicate.
Last year, Robyn and I filed hundreds of FOIs across the country asking for the FOI logs held by public bodies. These are, essentially, FOI metadata: the texts of requests, the dates they were filed and completed, and the disposition of the requests–that is, were records released in full, in part, or denied outright?
The resulting data has been compiled into www.secretcanada.com, a compendium of more than 300,000 FOI summaries for federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments. The data also includes information on FOIs filed to police forces, hospitals, school boards and universities, and more. For any given request, the site tells users how to either access the documents online or, barring that, file a new FOI for the release package. (MuckRock recently launched its own log tracker, so we’re clearly in good company.)
The website also serves as an educational resource, and includes several painfully detailed guides that walk through crafting requests, navigating the process and appealing a public body’s decision. We also wrote a detailed guide to every jurisdiction in the country, built an FOI letter generator, open-sourced our Google Sheets-based FOI tracker and provided examples of successful FOI letters from our colleagues. There’s also a blog.
But why did we spend so long writing these guides and filing hundreds of requests to collect the FOI logs of more than 600 public bodies across the country?
We want Secret Canada to serve as a central clearinghouse for all things FOI, and to show the public the power they can wield when they file FOI requests. If we could teach our readers how to use FOI, we thought, they would see the system’s flaws for themselves–and, perhaps, serve as a catalyst for change.
The response to this Secret Canada project has been uplifting. We’ve heard from journalists, academics, public servants and regular ol’ public citizens, all of whom have found records through our database or learned (or taught others) how to file FOIs using our resources.
The information that public bodies in your community collect and disseminate through FOI are a public service, but often those records are shared only with the requester, meaning the labour spent compiling and redacting files will ultimately benefit just a single person. With an FOI log tracker like Secret Canada’s, we’re socializing the data and documents produced by public bodies. Buried in those records are countless stories, tips, and nuggets that will lead to future accountability reporting and service journalism for your audience.
Over the summer, we filed our second round of FOIs to populate the database, and used this as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes we made the first time. We simplified our data request and rewrote our request letter from scratch. Our new and improved letter makes it painfully clear why we’re requesting FOI log data, the information we want and why we really, really want public bodies to send us Excel files.
We also put together a special guide meant specifically for FOI offices, which we linked to in our request letter. That guide serves as an FAQ for the FOI coordinators handling our requests.
(So far, these efforts have paid off: As of this writing, 75 percent of my completed requests have come back with an Excel document, a huge improvement over our first round.)
You can replicate our work. If you’re a journalist for a local or regional news outlet, there’s nothing stopping you from compiling a similar log of completed FOIs. It would only take a handful of targeted requests (which you could draft by adapting our request letter template) to your local government, police, hospitals and school boards. You wouldn’t need all the bells and whistles of a custom database, either–even a public dataset in Google Sheets could be an invaluable public service to the nosy neighbours, activists and journalists in your community.
Jumpstart your own “Secret ______” project
Much of the work described above for Secret Canada has been open-sourced or could be easily adapted for your community, especially if you’re not trying to collect FOI logs on a national scale.
If you want to teach your audience how to wield the awesome power of FOI requests, you could start with any (or all!) of these ideas:
- Adapt our request letter template to your needs and file FOI log FOIs to the big players in your area: the municipal government, the local county government, the police, fire fighters, emergency services, local hospitals, transit services, school boards, universities, and so on.
- Create a list of FOIable public bodies in your area for your audience, along with information on how to file requests to each one.
- Once you start getting some FOI logs back, publish them on Google Sheets, Airtable, or another online spreadsheet system and share that information with your audience. (This will require some tedious spreadsheet clean-up work–but we think it’s worth the effort!)
- Write your own version of this guide for public institutions, explaining how public bodies in your community can best respond to your FOI log requests. (Our guide might get you going, but there’s a ton of Secret Canada references there you’ll want to swap out for your own project.)
- Write your own version of our no-nonsense guides to filing FOIs, navigating the FOI process once you’ve filed and appealing requests. (Appeals, in particular, are very different in the U.S.!)
- Create your own general-purpose FOI piggyback letter templates, similar to what we have on our search page.
- Create a guide with ideas for FOIs your audience could file tomorrow. Great first requests for an FOI novice could include: asking for copies of your mayor’s expense reports; contracts for snow clearing or pothole-filling services; asking for a copy of police reports involving yourself, if applicable; any city planning and environmental documents about your home address; and so on.
- Update our FOI tracking sheet template for your needs and share that with your audience.
- Share examples of successful FOIs you and your colleagues filed and the stories they led to. (Several readers reached out early on to say that our examples of FOI success stories were their favourite part of the whole website.)
- And, of course, report on your own FOIs–whether they are successful or not–to help your audience realize they, too, could be filing their own requests.
Tom Cardoso is an investigative reporter at The Globe and Mail. His past reporting has looked at recidivism in white-collar crime, gun policy, systemic racism in prisons, and the finances of the Catholic Church.