So you might want to conduct a Freedom of Information audit.
Do we have some help for you!
Thanks to the generous support of SPJ’s supporting foundation, Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ has created the first-ever “FOI Audit Toolkit” — a complete “how-to” reference for anyone tackling an FOI audit.
FOI audits serve as a great way to:
•Monitor FOI compliance by government at the state and local level.
• Build a coalition of public access advocates who become up close and personal with FOI laws.
• Demonstrate weaknesses in access laws.
I know of nearly 30 states and communities that have conducted FOI audits so far, but plenty of opportunities remain.
And again, you don’t have to tackle a statewide audit. Plenty of audits tackle local government, cities, towns, townships and counties.
You can even audit a single state agency.
An example of a single-institution audit:
• The Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., conducted an audit focused on whether college campus officials made public the outcome of disciplinary proceedings when a student faced sanctions for behavior that would constitute a violent crime or a nonforcible sex offense, as defined by federal law.
• The SPLC wrote to a public and private university in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia to request a copy of those specific records for offenses that took place from Aug.15 to Dec. 31, 2002.
• The SPLC audit questionnaire asked the schools to disclose all information allowed by the Family and Education Right to Privacy Act, called FERPA.
The audit sought the name of the alleged perpetrator, the violation committed and resulting sanctions. A university also may disclose the names of the victim and any witnesses involved with their consent.
• Among the 102 schools audited, 59 sent some form of response, 46 public and 13 private.
• Among those 59, 17 schools provided at least some of the information requested, while 26 provided none of the information.
• Among the 16 schools remaining, eight claimed no such offenses occurred, eight claimed they needed more time to respond.
• No private schools released any of the requested information.
Another audit example — this one conducted by Holly Hacker, then a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, now a reporter at the Dallas Morning News — employed a lone reporter.
What did Hacker do? It’s called an “e-audit.”
She e-mailed a sampling of municipal offices throughout the state, seeking a variety of electronically stored records. She wanted to report on consistency of access to this kind of data throughout Missouri.
Her story’s lead:
“Want an electronic copy of a city budget? A database of property records? A spreadsheet of gun-permit holders?
Good luck in Missouri, where most local governments cannot or will not provide public records electronically, based on an investigation conducted for the Tribune.”
What about examples of successful large-scale audits?
• In 2000, the Maryland-D.C. Press Association sponsored an audit that sought some of the most routine records open to the public, including school violence reports and police logs.
The audit documented that people seeking such records have about a 1-in-4 chance of immediate compliance. Half the time, they get nothing.
• The state auditor of Missouri conducted an audit in 1999, which found abysmal compliance with state FOI laws. The audit received widespread publicity, and agencies vowed to change their ways. Less than two years later, the state auditor conducted the same audit — and again found that less than half of all requests were honored.
• In Illinois, a 1999 audit found that nearly two-thirds of the time, people requesting public documents from local offices left empty-handed. More than 25 percent of all requests for public records were never honored — never — even after officials were given extra time to seek legal advice or to compile the records. One county sheriff, when asked to provide a copy of the county jail’s log, wadded up a copy of the state’s Freedom of Information Act and told the reporter, “I don’t have to tell you nothing.”
• In 1999, a group of New Jersey’s Gannett newspapers sent reporters to 14 of the New Jersey’s 21 counties to monitor compliance with state law. Eventually, the reporters asked questions of 601 state and local agencies. In a state where the only existing FOI law was considered outdated, vague and difficult to enforce, the reporters found that officials routinely refused access. The final result was that half of all legitimate public records requests were denied.
Paul D’Ambrosio, investigations editor of the Asbury Park Press, said that the audit demonstrated what everyone in New Jersey knew was true: Access in New Jersey was difficult at best, impossible at worst.
“The audit was a huge part of the equation,” he said. “It played a major role in creating the environment for legislative change.”
In 2002, New Jersey enacted a revised sunshine law, many of its improvements directly inspired by the audit.
An infinite variety of audits can be conducted by anyone — from the largest newsgathering institutions to a single journalism student. Anyone can test a community’s transparency, and this toolkit will help you get started.
We’ve compiled everything you need to get started: training, “DOs” and “DO NOTs,” suggestions on documents to request and more.
We’ve even included a worksheet to help organize an audit once you get started, along with a list of resources.
The FOI Audit Toolkit — in HTML on SPJ’s web site and on a CD-ROM available to journalists through SPJ headquarters — contains links to copies of every audit we could get our hands on. They are full of tips, document samples, and strategy.
If you get stuck at any point in the process, you can call or e-mail someone on SPJ’s FOI committee, and they will be glad to help.
Remember: Somewhere in your community — right now — a resident is being denied access to public records. For that resident, the denial represents what might very well be the first and only time that parent, or homeowner, or community activist, will requested information from the government.
That is why we conduct FOI audits. They show the gap between what government says and what government does.
The Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism — which prepared the FOI Audit Toolkit — has agreed to serve SPJ as a resource for anyone in the country thinking about conducting an audit.
Give us a call.
Charles Davis, co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, is an associate professor, news-editorial, and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.