This was a landmark year for me in terms of journalistic milestones. I managed to complete my thesis, and with it, my first solo documentary and multimedia website. I found myself on the front page of the Globe and Mail. We founded WORST. And I wrote my first ATIP request.

Now, the last item in that list might not seem as impressive as the others, but for me, it was just as important—perhaps the most important. As any journalist can tell you, you’re only as good as the stories you can dig up, and there is arguably no more underused method to digging up stories than an ATIP request.

An ATIP (Access to Information and Privacy) request is essentially the Canadian government’s equivalent to the more well-known FOI, or Freedom of Information Request, and can be used to request anything from emails from government officials, to contracts awarded, to long-lost documents. You can even request any files government agencies (including intelligence agencies!) have on you as an individual.

Both the Canadian and United States governments have committed to transparency, as often as it may not seem like it; the Harper government has been accused of denying requests unnecessarily. Under normal circumstances, if you can make a request that isn’t excluded from the law, then you’ll have the information in your hands after your request is processed. There are a litany of exemptions, some more valid than others, but a few important ones concern threats on the safety of an individual and information that would impact Canada’s economic interests.

During my research for my thesis project, I filed numerous ATIP requests. Some were unsuccessful, but others uncovered cool documents and historical information that I wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise. I had an ace-in-the-hole in this respect: my thesis supervisor was Kirk LaPointe, a long-time champion of transparency in government, as well as former CBC ombudsman and managing editor of the Vancouver Sun (and potential mayoral candidate).

LaPointe didn’t write the book on ATIPs, but he got someone else to. He recently became editor-in-chief of Self-Counsel Press and promptly commissioned a how-to book on the subject.

“I think our freedom-of-information laws are underused,” LaPointe explained over email, after I asked him why commissioning a book on this topic was so important. “I worry that they will become more restrictive and expensive, and I believe institutions will become less transparent if the public doesn’t send the signal that it wants to exercise its right to know.

“I wanted to commission this book because there are so few resources to help people understand how the law can be used effectively.”

Funny, Kirk. That’s the same reason I wanted to write this post.

Here are a few things to think about when filing an ATIP request. We’ll focus on the ATIP, because it’s Canadian, but many of these tips translate for the United States, as well.

Ask questions first, file later

Research is absolutely critical to filing a successful ATIP request. First, figure out exactly what information you’re looking for, and whether it’s accessible under the law. Read the statute I linked above, and if you’re not sure, call an ATIP coordinator. It’s their job to help with these requests (and to reduce the amount of paperwork on their end), so if you’re about to file an erroneous request, they’ll be happy to weed it out before it hits the pile. Check what’s already been filed, too; some governments publicly post the results of every request they receive.

Next, you need to figure out who is most likely to have the information you want. Is it likely held by federal, provincial, or municipal governments? Filing your request to an incorrect place doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be filled; they’ll move it along, but each federal department has a thirty-day waiting period to respond. If their response is that you’ve sent the request to the wrong place and they’ve forwarded it somewhere else, that thirty days starts again.

Once you’ve figured out what you’re looking for, and where to get it, the next step is to call ahead and simply ask. Get ahold of someone there, explain what you’re looking for, and see if they can give it to you without going through the ATIP process. It’s helpful to explain to them that you’ll file an ATIP if you have to, but if they can get information for you on the front end, it’ll save you (and them) time and hassle. Not everyone in government wants to clam up as tight as possible, and you’d be surprised how often a polite ask works.

Phrasing, people. Phrasing.

If that fails, your next step is to make an official request. Again, I’ll limit my scope to the federal government, though some of these tips do translate to provincial and municipal governments.

Access to Information infrastructure in Canada is frustratingly Jurassic in nature. There are a few departments that allow for online filing, but for most, a request must be made via a printed-off form and sent through snail mail. The form (and a link to the online request portal) can be found here.

Address the form/envelope to the ATIP coordinator of the department you’ve targeted. You’ll also need to include a $5 cheque payable to the Receiver General of Canada as a processing fee. No, I’m not kidding. This stuff is pretty archaic.

Once you’ve gotten through all that, though, you need to phrase the ask itself on the form. This is where these requests either succeed or fail, and, according to LaPointe, it all comes down to phrasing.

“The laws can be intimidating for novices,” said LaPointe. “Mainly the problems ensue with the phrasing of requests as either too broad and expensive to process, or too narrow and specific to produce the right records.”

ATIP requests aren’t free to process. Depending on the amount of records, you’ll have to pay a fee to have them copied and sent to you, which can be exorbitant. It can also take months to track down all the relevant information involved in massive requests (and months after that for you to sift through it all).

To trim this down, file multiple requests. Instead of saying you want “all documents related to the Kinder Morgan pipeline,” make two requests asking for “all correspondence between the Department of Natural Resources and Kinder Morgan representatives” and “all cabinet records related to discussion on the Kinder Morgan pipeline.”

Be specific with a date range, as well—but leave yourself wiggle room. “With every government action, there is preparation and aftermath;” LaPointe explained.

“The best records are often found in the hands of departments and agencies, and they discuss what was intended with a policy or event and what happened after it occurred.”

Sit and wait

Once you’ve sent your perfectly worded request and $5 cheque on its way, there’s nothing for you to do but wait. You’ll get a letter from the government telling you they’ve received your request, and then, after thirty days or less, the results of the request itself.

Filing ATIPs is a long process that doesn’t really jive too well with what some would consider the high-impact, up-to-the-minute way news is filed today. But, according to LaPointe, they still have plenty to offer. I’ll give him the last word:

“They are better tools of history and reflection than of journalism and progression. They require patience and planning, but when records are disclosed, they offer an opportunity to revisit our understanding of issues and shape a new context to events. They also help us follow up on policies and developments when the records offer insight into the effectiveness of programs and their value for money.

“But, because they are usually scoops for any journalist who receives the records, I’d argue that they make news and can quite easily inject themselves into the daily news menu. Often, they comprise more interesting revelations than what would be staged for journalists on a given day.”

Sounds good to me. Now start writing those cheques. 

Image via LIFE Photo Collection, Google Cultural Institute