Layman’s Guide to RTI Act 2005 Part 7: Tips for writing successful RTI applications
1) A good RTI application as boring as a laundry list.
It is a bare list of items of information WITHOUT ANY reasoning. If the first draft of RTI application is interesting to read, something is wrong. Make corrections by deleting the interesting material, such as logical threads of reasoning and justification. You must focus on how to draft an RTI application that DOES NOT disclose the overall nature of the problem in your mind. It must not give a glimpse of what you intend to do with the requested information e.g. register police complaints, approach investigating agencies, file a PIL etc. Also, your RTI application must not indicate how badly you want the information, and therefore, please don’t mention anything such as “I am a senior citizen dependent on my pension cheques, and I have been pushed from pillar-to-post in search of this information.” When you write an RTI application, you must try to gain only information, and not sympathy, respect etc.
2) A good RTI application is short and childishly simple for the PIO to fulfill.
On the other hand, a badly-drafted RTI application is like a huge challenge to the PIO, virtually saying “I dare you to try and answer all these questions.” Put yourselves in the shoes of the Public Information Officer (PIO); what would you do if you saw a lengthy RTI application that asks endless questions and supplementary questions? If we were PIOs, we would endlessly postpone looking at the application, and then go out of our way to justify the delay or denial. Wouldn’t you? Think that you are a PIO, and then think about how to draft an RTI application that you would like to give a reply to without any delay.
3) If you need a lot of info, write multiple RTI applications.
A single lengthy application may scare and overwhelm the PIO, and tempt him to throw it into his drawer and delay in answering it. He will hesitate and postpone searching for the information. Instead, send a small, manageable RTI application with only 3-4 questions. Then, after you receive a reply to that, send another one… and another. This strategy also has another advantage: If the public information officer fails to answer more than one of these applications, he feels the threat of being liable for a larger penalty (Rs 250 x days of delay x no. of RTI applications). Even if he escapes penalty after denying information to one application, there is always the chance that other pending applications will get him penalized or reprimanded. Ask yourself: how to draft RTI applications that are difficult to deny, but very easy to answer? Draft your RTI applications in this way.
4) Keep the period of information minimal.
Don’t be over-ambitious. For an RTI applicant, it is very easy to write a question like, “Give copies of all gun licenses issued from January 1981 till date.” For the PIO, this means searching 30 years of files and records. Older files may have been put into basements or buried under tons of old dusty files. Therefore, please ask yourself whether you REALLY need data that is so old, or whether you are just trying to satisfy an academic curiosity. Don’t request 30 years data if five years data will suffice for your purposes. Don’t ask for five years data if six months data is sufficient.
5) Crime-fighting RTI application?
Ask for plenty of unnecessary data to misdirect mala-fide PIO. (Of course this contradicts earlier points… but there is method in the madness.) Suppose you want the details of a certain building that you suspect has built-up area in excess of permissions. To confirm your suspicions, you need the approved floor plan, etc. You may fear that if you make a direct request, corrupt officials of the Building Proposal department may deny, delay endlessly and argue that the files are lost. Question: how to improve your chances of quickly getting these key documents? Answer: Ask for inspection of entire files of five other unrelated buildings in your neighborhood. Include the name of this particular building in a random and casual way. When you go for inspection, don‘t show any special interest of this particular building; request photocopies of some unnecessary documents along with what you really want. Of course you may some money rupees on xeroxing unnecessary documents, but if you get the necessary documents without delays and appeals, it is worth it!
6) You are a citizen, not an investigating agency.
You don’t have to substantiate every allegation. File complaint first, RTIs later. That way, you will stop worrying about how to draft an RTI application that covers all the problem areas. Sometimes, we hesitate before leveling allegations and writing complaints. Our sense of fairness compels us to get into fact-finding by filing an RTI application first. That is not necessary. You are an alert citizen and not an expert; your first duty is to register a complaint! Let the investigating agency guys do their job and earn their salaries. Later on, you may optionally write an RTI application to uncover facts and documents… but that is your second step, not first. As the cowboys say, “Shoot first and ask questions later.”
7) Don’t shoot your first draft; first drafts are always faulty.
After you have written down your first draft of RTI application (or complaint or anything else), let it cool down in your drawer for a couple of days. Then take a re-look and think about making improvements. Ask a friend or colleague to have a look and give you suggestions.