1) Determine whether the records you seek are actually public records.
The PRA requires that state and local agencies provide public records when requested, absent a specific statutory exemption. Whether or not the records are "public records" is often a threshold determination in court actions under the PRA. The PRA defines "public record" in RCW 42.56.010(2), and courts have interpreted the statutory definition by adopting a 3-part test: a public record is a "writing," containing information "relating to the conduct of government or proprietary function, 'prepared, owned, used, or retained' by an agency." As with all provisions favoring disclosure within the PRA, courts are mandated to construe this broadly. However, if the records sought by a requester fall outside the broad definition of "public record," a state or local agency has no duty to respond under the mandate of the PRA.
2) Make sure you request an "identifiable" public record.
An agency's duty to respond to a PRA request is not triggered if the requester fails to make a request for an identifiable public record. This encompasses two facets: (1) the requester must sufficiently identify the record to the extent an agency employee would be reasonably expected to locate it; (2) the requester need not identify the exact name of the record. The first facet means that a requester cannot ask for mere information about a public record, nor can a requester ask that the agency create a record that does not already exist. However, an agency cannot refuse to respond to a valid public records request if it feels that the request is overbroad. The second part of the identifiable requirement is supported by the purpose and policy of the PRA, where agencies are prohibited from construing a PRA request narrowly to justify the silent withholding of records it should know are responsive to a less-than exact PRA request.
3) Indicate whether you want to inspect or pay for copies of the responsive records.
Agencies can provide access to public records a variety of ways, including allowing inspection, providing copies, or by posting the records on its website and directing the requester to it. The requester should probably indicate which method of access they prefer in their initial request, or ask the agency to provide an estimate of the number of responsive records, and then decide. If the requester asks for copies of the records, the agency is permitted to charge a default copying charge of $0.15 per page. However, an agency's ability to charge a requester is extremely limited, and charging a requester for the inspection, redaction, or preparation for inspection is expressly prohibited. If the requester chooses to actually inspect the records, the agency is required to allow for inspection or copying during the "customary officer hours of the agency." Agencies and requesters are encouraged to communicate and decide upon a mutually agreeable time to inspect or copy records.
4) Make your request in writing.
There is no requirement under the PRA that a request be in a particular format. It can be either oral or in writing, and there are advantages to each. A request may be by mail, fax, email, etc. Agencies are also encouraged to include public records request forms on their websites, which might be the most convenient and effective avenue. Larger requests should generally be in writing, as this better memorializes the interaction with the agency in the event of litigation--and provides unambiguous notice to the agency that a PRA request has been made. With oral requests, often times the agency has been instructed to reduce the request into writing anyway and verify it with the requester. Whatever the format, it is in the requester's best interest to actually cite the PRA in their request, though it is not required. There is no requirement that the requester identify themselves or explain their purpose for the request--agencies are prohibited from asking (with limited exception).
5) Address the request to the Public Records Officer.
Each agency is required to have a designated Public Records Officer under RCW 42.56.040(1)(a). A state agency must have that person's name and contact information provided in the state register. A local agency, however, must only publish the Public Records Officer's name and contact information in a way "reasonably calculated to provide notice to the public," such as by posting on the agency's website. A published Washington Administrative Code regulation provides constructive notice that a records request should be submitted to a designated Public Records Officer--the agency may not be required to respond if not.
6) Indicate what format you want the responsive public records.
The PRA does not distinguish between paper and electronic records--and agency has a duty to provide records responsive to a valid PRA request in whatever form. An agency does not have an obligation to provide electronic copies of paper records, or vice versa, although providing all public records in electronic format has been expressly encouraged to agencies by the Legislature. Copying electronic records tends to be much quicker than paper, as is the redaction process. Generally, an agency should provide electronic records if requested in that format, as long as it is "technically feasible" to do so. Translating paper records into electronic formats, such as Adobe PDF, is analogous to making a copy of the record, and the agency could recover the cost of the scanning. The "technical feasibility" determination is necessarily a fact-based inquiry unique to each situation--i.e., for an agency of a small size, what is technically feasible may be different compared to a large agency.
Checklist for a basic public records request
1) Put the request in writing and cite the PRA (neither required however)
2) Provide date in the request
3) Provide name, address, and contact information of the requester (though not required)
4) Identify the public records that are being requested--with specificity if possible
5) Address to the agency that has the public records if known
6) Tell the agency the purpose of request (not required though)
7) Inform the agency of whether you want to copy or inspect the records
8) Tell agency of responsive records you are not seeking to help streamline agency's response efforts
9) Remind the agency that it must cite a specific statutory exemption and provide a privilege log
10) Address the request to the specific Public Records Officer
11) Identify what format the requester wants the records
12) Remember that clarity and conciseness counts--a poor request might have all these factors, but be too muddled and ambiguous to be effective.
How do you obtain public records from state agencies?
WCOG conducted a "How to Obtain Public Records" survey, a "Fees for Records Requests" survey, and a "Policies Regarding Public Record Requests" survey of Washington State Agencies. Over 300 agencies responded.
Click here to find a state agency.
The following content was developed by David Cuillier, University of Arizona
Strategies for Accessing Records – A helpful graphic that details the steps to accessing to public records
Overcoming Denials – A list of common reasons for denial and how to get around them
Tips for Dealing with Government Agencies to Obtain Public Records
Soft Tactics and Principled Negotiation