Emily Ramshaw investigates state agencies and covers social services for the Tribune. Previously, she spent six years reporting for The Dallas Morning News, first in Dallas, then in Austin. In April 2009 she was named Star Reporter of the Year by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Headliners Foundation of Texas. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, she received a bachelor’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Can you talk about open government, transparency, how it’s important…
Sure. First off, I work for the Texas Tribune which is a politics and policy website and a large part of what we do revolves around data. Open government is huge to us. We routinely file open records requests, for example, to get the salaries of every state official, state employee. We use it to figure out where prisoners are. We use it to track how much the governor is spending on travel as he runs for president. So it really… pretty much everything we do, day in and day out, revolves around transparency and open government and working our tails off to make sure that information that state agencies hold dear to them is accessible to us and therefore is available to the public, to our readers.
How is the state of Texas compared to the rest of the country in terms of openness?
In some things it’s really not great, in others it’s okay. I’ve heard horror stories about Pennsylvania and some of their laws regarding universities, what little you can get through athletics. In Texas, in recent years, there’s been more effort toward transparency. That said, at the end of the day, we really still largely battle to get information. Agencies often hide behind sending our requests to the Attorney General’s office, because then they know at least they have another 60 days before we can get that information, if the AG rules in our favor, which often the AG doesn’t. Inside the governor’s office, there is not a very good record’s retention policy. They are able to delete emails after two weeks — they rarely keep a written record. So it’s an incredible challenge for reporters trying to get any kind of paper trail because they can eliminate those documents so readily.
What can you do to fight that?
There have been groups of journalists that have gotten together and have pushed for the legislature to provide more lenient rules. There’s a shield law that passed a couple of legislative sessions ago, so there’s at least a shield law here in Texas. But I would say, consistently, we just push and push and push. The more that we put records online, the more that we put what we can get online, we pressure them — and then our readers pressure them — to turn it over. I wouldn’t say that we’ve become big public advocates but at the same time when documents aren’t turned over that should be turned over, we write stories about it. We write stories about why we can’t provide certain documents, certain sources, to the public, to our readers. I think that creates an environment where readers want to know why they can’t get it and lawmakers want to respond to their readers.
What are some of the things the public doesn’t know about their right to information?
I think the public, generally, knows very little about what they can and cannot get access to. For example, take governor Rick Perry. He’s been running for president and he’s had a slew of security forces with him, state troopers with him… And those individuals are paid for with taxpayer dollars. Well we filed all kinds of open records requests to find out how much they were spending and what they were doing and why all these state forces were out on the trail with Perry. And we largely couldn’t get that information because they said it would be a security risk to turn it over. I don’t think the public would have any idea that basic information about how taxpayer dollars are being spent is inaccessible to them.
What are some tips you’d give to young journalists new to requesting information?
I think it’s really important to build relationships with these people, because I think what you’ll often find is reporters filing a barrage of requests with a state agency, and the state agency balks and doesn’t want to help, sends your request immediately to the AG for an opinion… I’ve found the better my relationship is with those people, the more likely I am to get that information. I’ve also found that trying to circumvent the Attorney General’s office by filing a request and then following it up with a phone call, saying, ‘Look, I’d like to avoid at all costs this getting tied up in litigation, tell me what I can and can’t get under the law. Tell me how I can avoid getting this tangled up. Tell me legally what I’m entitled to. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s see if I can amend my request to get this information in a timely fashion.’ I think the better you know the law, the better you know those characters, the more likely you are to get that information in a timely fashion. I also have found that by building close relationships in the AG’s office means I can then call and say, ‘Look, this agency is pushing back on a request of mine. What am I entitled to, how would you direct me to go about this?’ And I think being well-sourced on that side of the aisle is also helpful. So, ultimately, get in with these agencies. Meet them, go out to lunch, go out to coffee. Once they see you as a real human being as opposed to a ‘scary journalist’ who’s out to get them or their bosses in trouble, they’re far more likely to be reasonable and to help you.
Are there FOI Coalition around here that the Tribune works with regularly?
There’s a FOI association in Texas, there’s a first amendment group, a number of first amendment attorney’s who work closely with non-profits like us to help guide us through those tumultuous legal times. So yes, there are.
Anything else you’d like to say about the subject?
The Texas Tribune launched two years ago as a non-profit with the mission of bringing difficult-to-obtain public information to the general public, to our readers, so that they could engage with it. This is often an uphill battle. We publish the salary of every state employee, every school district, every possible county government agency… we often hear from these people who are furious that their salaries are online and I think it’s been a learning curve for us and a learning curve for the public, too, about what constitutes public information. What people are entitled to. I think it’s something you face with agencies, something you face with readers. It’s fascinating, for us, to sort of negotiate those waters.
How has openness in government changed in say the last ten years?
I think about ten years ago, when I started my journalism career, it was very difficult to get information. It remains that way, but over time, you’re starting to see lawmakers and agencies put a premium on access to public information. They’re priding themselves about how well they put data online. You really have seen a shift in the last two to three years with agencies starting to get their heads around – “okay, the open records requests aren’t going to stop. How do we make this easier on us? Without having to do all this paperwork” by just putting their information online readily.
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