There’s an interesting tidbit today up at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. A blog post reports on informal studies of Freedom of Information Act requests that answer the old question of whether it’s better to be nice or nasty.
In this case, is it better to make a request for public documents with a letter that is polite and helpful or one that forcefully reminds the government official of legal obligations and threatens a lawsuit if the law is not met.
Turns out you’re better off getting tough.
In 2007 Cuillier and a colleague did an experiment: they sent letters to all 104 police agencies in Arizona asking to look at police use-of-force incidents. Selected at random, half were sent a friendly letter that thanked the recipient in advance, acknowledged the time it would take out of the clerk’s day, and offered to help if necessary. The other half were sent a “threatening” letter, which included statements of a willingness to sue, and which matter-of-factly, and somewhat aggressively, stated the receiving agency’s obligations in the process.
Which one got more results? The threatening one.
According to Cuillier, only half of those who received the friendly letter even responded to it. And only 4% actually provided the records. Compare that to the unfriendly letter, where two-thirds responded and 14% turned over the records. The threatening letter also resulted in lower copy fees and a faster response.
When Cuillier repeated the experiment with 208 school districts — asking for coaching and superintendent contracts — he added a “neutral” letter to the mix, one that was matter-of-fact, but that didn’t threaten suit. Again, the threatening letter garnered the best response rate: 74% versus 50% for the friendly and neutral versions. Copy fees were again lower, as were the response times.
Check out the full post for more information, theories about why this is so, and what VCOG thinks citizens should do with these findings.