NFOIC National FOI Summit

Yesterday, I spent the day discussing FOI tactics with journalists, academics and legal counsel at the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s (NFOIC) National FOI Summit. The 2010 Summit was held in Arlington VA just minutes away from the National Capital. To give some history, the NFOIC is a collection of state operated transparency organizations based out of the University of Missouri’s school of Journalism. They currently have state chapters in 48 states, lacking only the two Dakotas.

At the Summit, NFOIC not only presented its annual award but brought in an excellent key note speaker. The Keynote address was delivered by Meriam Nisbet, the director of the new federal Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration. She spoke on the effectiveness and plans for the new office, which is designed to act as an alternative appeals process to reduce court loads and encourage individuals and organizations who disagree on the release of records to seek mediation in the place of expensive legal action. In addition to the Keynote speaker, the NFOIC delivered its Hero of the Fifty States Award to Robert Freeman, director of the New York Committee on Open Government. We here at WikiFOIA would like to officially congratulate Mr. Freeman on his award.

The one day conference presented not only an opportunity to present awards and talk with other FOIA organizations from across the country and learn what they are accomplishing in their states, but also brought in a number of excellent speakers to discuss topics like funding small non-profits, the costs of FOIA litigation and the transition to digital FOIA. The discussions provided some interesting insights which I’d like to share with everyone.

Panel 1: Coalition Sustainability and Fundraising

This panel presented the question, “How do you keep that fledgling FOI group going, or take the next step? What fundraising strategies and tactics work best for nonprofits? Hear from those who’ve successfully conducted the never-ending search for funds.” The panel members included Jennifer Cox, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Katherine Sawyer, a freelance fundraiser, Douglas Stewart, Center for Health, Environment and Justice, and was moderated by Chris Pabon, the development director for the Project on Government Oversight. You can find a full list of panelist biographies here

The panel shared the following tips, which I found interesting and useful:

  • Use email signature lines to ask for money. This provides a free outlet to request support for your organization, and it may encourage individuals you communicate with frequently to support your cause.
  • Keep your current donors up to date about your accomplishments. This will encourage future donations.
  • The proposal is the last step in grant writing. Constant communication prior to the proposal will increase your chances with foundational grants.
  • Chris Pabon provided some excellent tips with regard to writing Letters of Inquiry to grant giving foundations, including:
    1. 1.) Use the first name of the person your sending the letter to, so as to create a sense of familiarity.
      2.) Use at least 12 pt font to insure than anyone can read your letter. Also use 1 inch margins and keep it under 2 pages to stay concise and to the point.
      3.) In your first two sentences include who you are, how much money you want, and why you want it.
      4.) Be sure to name drop other funding sources, because they may communicate with each other and increase your chances of obtaining a grant.
      5.) Include your contact information in the body of the letter, as well as on the letter head.
  • On the subject of events, the panels cautioned that less is more. In addition, small non-profits need to be aware that events often won’t make any money, but instead create opportunities to get some face time with current and potential donors and reintroduce them to the organization and its goals and accomplishments.
  • Finally, for smaller non-profits who could not afford to hire development staff to obtain grants, they encouraged including a development person on the board, so as to both obtain their services and increase funding awareness on the board as a whole
  • Panel 2: Transparency in the Digital Age: The report card, thus far

    Panel 2 poses the question, “Governments large and small are embracing the rise of digital transparency. Hear from the experts working to transform access to governmental information and see what you can take home in the form of best practices.”
    During this panel, the three Panelists presented separately on various methods the Federal government had used to employ digital methods for posting data.

    David Donald, High Value Data Sets

    David Donald, the data editor for the Center for Public Integrity, spoke first about the federal goverments movement to post high value data sets on branch websites. The central hub website for this information can be found at www.data.gov. These data sets are key for number crunching and finding stories in the journalism field referred to as computer assisted reporting. These data sets have also been used to break the information down into smaller, more local information, by websites like Everyblock.com. However, he cautioned to be aware of dirty or unreliable data that may have been collected poorly.

    John Wonderlich

    John Wonderlich, of the Sunlight Foundation, spoke about a number of new websites and technologies that are being employed by the Sunlight Foundation and other organizations to increase transparency. He pointed to their new website, Transparencydata.com which works to track campaign contributions at state and local levels. He also highlighted the British website, Whatdotheyknow.com which provides a third party method for submitting records requests, but also tracks those requests and helps individuals obtain information which may have already been requested.

    J. H. Snider and Metadata tagging

    Snider, president of iSolon.org, spoke on high value data sets as well, but with an eye towards the future. Snider advocated an expanded use of metadata tags, which were required to be placed by the public bodies logging the data, in order to better enable information to be searched and compared. He specifically highlighted a method of tracking conflicts of interests through the use of tags to highlight both funding contributions and appropriations.

    Panel 3: Freedom of Information Litigation: The State of Advocacy

    This panel addressed the prompt: “The state of the news media economy has FOI advocates concerned about who funds the battle for open government, and litigation is no exception. Hear from some of the country’s leading FOI litigants, and learn more about the new Knight FOI Fund.”
    During this panel, the three panelists responded to a number of questions from both the moderator and the audience. The first question they were confronted with was how small newspapers and individuals are confronting the problem of paying for expensive litigation during this economic recession.

  • Ginger Stanley of the >Virginia Press Association said that the current motion is towards coalition building amongst various press organizations in order to share the burden of litigation costs.
  • Ashley Messenger, a media lawyer, stressed that more and more newspapers are opting to get information through leaks and not through public records requests in order to avoid the expense.
  • Finally, Andrea Flynn Mogensen, an open government sole-practicioner, stressed the importance of fees shifting and awards statutes to better enable citizens to openly pursue records.
  • When confronted with the problem of deciding what cases to prosecute, Messenger focused on the rational of the case, determining that if you could explain the logic to the average person, it was probably worth prosecuting. In addition, she later stressed that news organizations should realize that FOIA expenses are a cost of doing good business. Finally, when addressing the issue of privacy, Ginger Stanley focused on a movement away from collecting unnecessary information instead of a movement towards protecting that information.

    This is a basic summary of the panel discussions. More information and links to come as they post them the to NFOIC website.

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    One response to “NFOIC National FOI Summit

    1. Pingback: May 8, 2010 | iSolon.org

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