Cam Rodriguez, data reporter for Illinois Answers Project, and Matt Topic, partner at Loevy & Loevy, discuss best FOIA practices during an online training Tuesday, June 27, 2023.

So you want to hold your government accountable and file a records request. How do you get started?

On Monday, the Illinois Answers Project and Better Government Association hosted a training and conversation about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for journalists, nonprofits and engaged Illinois residents with public records expert Matt Topic. 

Topic, partner at Loevy & Loevy and general counsel for Better Government Association, explained some common pitfalls for FOIA-filers and answered questions about the FOIA process, ranging from response timeframes to judicial records reform. 

For those struggling with getting a response – regardless of whether it’s a first-time FOIA, an unexpected denial or an overly broad request – Topic has one big suggestion: pick up the phone to talk to a FOIA officer.

“Get them on the phone, try to work something out, try to narrow it a little bit,” he told attendees. That way, if you’re still getting pushback and decide to litigate, it bodes better in court.

Watch: Q&A with FOIA expert Matt Topic 

The training, which is posted here on YouTube, spanned a variety of issues that records requesters might face, including exemptions to and the legal limits of FOIA, strategies for dealing with “undue burden” claims and how to handle denials. Topic also discussed the implications of the recent decision by the Illinois Supreme Court to limit access to database schemas, or the layout of files and databases, for requesters.

YouTube video

FOIA resources for Illinois residents and journalists

Check out these links to learn more about the Freedom of Information Act, how you can use it and what you need to get started to promote government transparency and accountability.

Cam Rodriguez started as Illinois Answers Project's data reporter in May 2023. Cam is interested in the overlap between community engagement, investigative and data reporting. In her work, she has done everything from research and archive/database digging, creating graphics and interactive visualizations, editing and management, engagement strategy, public records requests and more.