Joel Campbell, the national FOI committee chair of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote this morning to ask some good questions about the WikiFoia which led to a long, rambling answer from me. (Good luck editing that, Joel.)
Part of my answer lies in the fact that I’ve participated over the years in online communities where anyone can easily add their own content–as with message boards and e-groups.
This relates to the WikiFoia in a couple of ways.
User-communities can solve the knowledge problem when much of the knowledge is experiential. You can read online guides to filing FOIA all day long, and none of them are going to help you when you get back one of the hundreds of quirky and discouraging responses you might get back. In those cases, it is extremely helpful to go to a more senior member of the community (in this case, “the FOIA community”) and say “NOW what am I supposed to do?”
I imagine that old newshounds mentor young investigative reporters this way all the time. So part of the inspiration for the WikiFoia was to gradually start building a community where citizen newcomers might be able to find some of that same kind of mentoring–the kind that reaches right into the specific problem you are having at a given moment in time.
Online user-communities can also solve the discouragement problem.
There’s a lot of built-in discouragement in the FOIA process–delays, denials, excessive fees, incomplete returns, and on and on. On top of that, whether you’re a regular person or a reporter, it’s somewhat inherent in the act of filing an open records request that you think there’s at least a possibility that someone was doing something they shouldn’t have been doing.
You can feel like you’re the skunk at the garden party. If you’re a reporter, you’re sort of supposed to be a skunk at the garden party but for an average citizen who thinks maybe the people down at city hall did something wrong, it can be psychologically intimidating to take on this role.
It’s nice to have people to encourage you when you’re facing these obstacles and doubts. Online communities can really help with that.