How to investigate the actions of public officials

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In this post, Michael Corwin, a professional investigator who resides in New Mexico, provides five steps for investigating the actions of public officials. While many of the decisions of public officials are made behind closed doors, Corwin explains that with the right preparation, it is possible to find quite a bit of useful information about the actions and motivations of public officials.

The investigator I trained with called people with information “walking, talking sources”. Intelligence agencies refer to them as “Humanint”. People possess vast amounts of information and are often a critical source of information when conducting an investigation. The interview is the process that investigators use to access that information.

Your ability to investigate the actions of public officials, including those in your state making decisions about public education that can lead to profiteering by private companies, will be enhanced by your ability to conduct interviews and document that information.

There are five steps to an effective interview. Within each of these steps there are actions you can take that will improve your chance for success. Familiarize yourself with this process, but understand that just like in life, interviews are not cast in stone. You might receive a “tip” call from an insider at the education department or from a legislator’s office wanting to provide you with information, and in that case you will need to jump right into the interview and bypass some of the steps entirely.

Step One: Preparation

Interviews are not meant to be a fishing expedition. Every interview should have a purpose and a path to achieve that purpose. Rowing out into the middle of the ocean and dropping a line with whatever bait you have on the boat is a much less effective way of catching a fish than going to a location where you know the type of fish already inhabiting that location and what food they like to eat. Preparation is the key to success for most interviews.

For example, through court records research you learn that there is a former administrator from your state’s education office that is suing the department for being terminated. Part of the fired employee’s claim is that she reported suspected illegal conduct within the department such as “pay to play” involving the director.

The information contained in the lawsuit becomes your basis for the interview preparation. Break the information down that you want to document into categories based upon the who, what, where, when, why and how that we all learned to use as students in school.

Rather than create a script of questions to ask, use the categories of information you created to develop an outline of information to cover during the interview. Scripted questions lead to stilted interviews and missed opportunities.

Interviews meander like rivers rather than follow grid patterns. You must be able to follow new or unanticipated information that surfaces during the interview to its logical end. Using a checklist of questions also makes it harder to truly listen because you are focused more on your own questions than upon the interviewee’s answers.
Once you have prepared your outline your next step is determining the manner of contract.

Step Two: Determining the Best Method to Make Contract

There is a great scene in the film “All the Presidents Men”, in which Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford show up unannounced at a series of front doors of people they want to interview. The in person cold call, as investigators refer to this process, is often the most effective approach to someone you think may be reluctant to speak with you.

It uses the element of surprise to catch people when their guard is down, and allows them to see that you are a nice person, which hopefully humanizes you to them.

But this is a labor-intensive process, which is not practical when there is time pressure or a significant geographic distance between you and the interviewee. You also must consider personal safety too. When possible it is best to have two people go since you will be entering a stranger’s home.

The telephone is often a poor substitute when contacting people, as you have to get past caller-ID, protective family members and voice mail. It is best used when time is short, or you are too far away to go in person. Though it is the preferable approach when you believe the person you want to interview is willing to speak with you.

For those that you think are cooperative and nearby, you can use the telephone to set an appointment and then meet with them in person at a place like a coffee shop where you can do the interview face to face. Face to face is always preferable because the ability to read a person and demonstrate that you are hearing what they have to say is much better face-to-face than over the telephone.

Emails can also be used as a manner of contact, but are less effective because you are unable to engage in the give and take that an interview requires. Perhaps instant messaging or Skype video chats can work as a hybrid process for willing interviewees that are too far away to meet in person.

Once you have figured out the method of approach, the next step is to take a deep breath and make contact.

Step Three: Making Contact

Whether face to face or over the phone you have about ten seconds to convince an interviewee to speak with you. Start with who you are and why you are contacting this person. Give them a reason to speak with you.

“Hi my name is Mike Corwin, and I am looking into (always better to say than investigating) some information involving the public education department.” Follow up your introduction with “have I caught you at a bad time?” or “would you have a couple of moments?”

This serves two purposes. The first is you are acknowledging that you are imposing upon the interviewee (empathy) and the second purpose is to ferret out any objections to being interviewed.

Just as in sales, overcoming objections is part of the process of conducting an interview. If the interviewee does not offer up any objections then you can go directly to step four, and begin the interview itself. If the person offers up an objection, then you must determine if the objection is one that can be ignored or must be overcome.

The most common objections are: “I don’t have time”, “I don’t know anything”, “I don’t want to get involved”, or “I could lose my job if I talk to you.”

Of those objections, fear of losing a paycheck is the most difficult to overcome. If the interviewee says, “I have to get my kids to soccer in twenty-minutes”, or some other genuine time constraint, ask for a better time to contact them. If the they say, “I have a bunch of (nonspecific) things to do today” then respond with something like, “I understand, this will only take a few moments” and ask your first question. Generic time objections usually fade away once the interviewee begins talking.

“I don’t know anything” can be addressed easily, respond with something like, “I hear you, then this won’t take more than a moment, I just wanted to run something past you and get your take on it.” Then ask your question. Once you get the person talking they will tell you what they know. You are contacting them because you already know that they know something that you need to confirm.

“I don’t want to get involved” or “I could lose my job” are tougher objections to overcome. You must respect genuine fear, such as getting fired and losing a paycheck. The best approach is to demonstrate that you understand the concern, “I can see that you are worried” and then say something like, “I am speaking with several other people”, which downplays the fear of being singled out. You can also offer to speak with them for “background information only” so that only you will know what they have to say. You must then honor that promise and look for other ways to document that information should the person agree to speak with you. However, if the person still objects to speaking with you, the best thing to do is to thank them for their time and try again at another time.

The importance of how you make contact cannot be overstated as it often determines the success of the interview.

Step Four: Conducting the Interview

Interviews are about listening. Not about talking. They are about building rapport when you can in order to help make the interviewee comfortable with you and the process. Pets, kids, hobbies, or work are topics that can help put people at ease. This is harder to do over the telephone than it is to do in person since you lack visual cues.

A simple way to build rapport over the phone might go “so how long did you work at the education department? What was it like?” If the interviewee responds that it was great until the new director started. Ask what the person liked about the work before the new director came in and caused problems. The trick is to get the person comfortable speaking with you.

Once the person is comfortable with you ask your first question and then be quiet. Do not rush in to fill silence with additional questions. Let the interviewee fill the silence. The more she does the more information you will get from her.

Questions should be open ended. Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. The more the person speaks the more information you will get. With each topic you want to cover start with general questions and work towards the specific. This helps to uncover and pursue information that you may not have been aware of before the interview began.

This is also why you want to avoid working off of a script. Working off of a script means you will miss this type of information that could be critical to your investigation.

A great way to get additional information is to ask questions like, “how so?” or “why do you think that is?” These types of questions get the interviewee to expand on her answers.

With an in person interview you can use bodily language to demonstrate your interest in what the person tells you. Lean forward and make eye contact. This is called reflexive listening and works wonders.

Over the telephone you have to balance your silence against interrupting the flow of the interview. A great way to do that is to give occasional encouragement with statements like, “wow, really?” or reword and restate it back to the interviewee “so what your saying is”.

Once you have covered all of the topics you wanted to cover, ask, “Is there anything else that you think I should be aware of” and let them respond. Follow up with questions to lock down anything they offer. Then you can close out the interview.

Ask if it is okay to call the interviewee if you run across additional information that you want to run by them. Most people will say yes. Thank them for their time and let the person know that you are truly appreciative of them speaking with you.

Step Five: Documenting the Information

When possible you should take notes during the interview. Try to avoid using bullet points as that means you are interpreting what the person tells you rather than documenting what they tell you. Try to write down what is said in the manner that it is said. This takes practice.

Saying “let me back you up for a second and make sure I understand” helps buys some time to complete your writing as you repeat out loud what the person told you. If you are more comfortable typing your notes into an IPAD or laptop, go ahead and do that. Though they are difficult to lug with you on an in person cold call.

There are some people who are comfortable being recorded, but most are not. Many smart phones have apps that allow you to record and works well with a person willing to be recorded.

After the interview is completed read through your notes and add anything that the person said that you missed as you took your notes. You can also add notes that provide context to what was said.

Interview notes can be tough to read months later. When possible type up a summary of the interview as you may need to come back to the interview months later.