FOI audits are great tools to monitor open-records compliance and check weaknesses in your state’s laws. Audits return journalism to its roots by protecting citizens’ rights to freedom of information and keeping government accountable. The purpose of the audit is to test how easily the average citizen can obtain public records.
Here is a condensed guide on conducting an audit on your college campus. For a complete guide, click here.
1) Choose your auditors carefully. A good audit requires organized auditors who can keep meticulous notes, remain impartial and think on their feet.
2) Develop a list of documents to request. It is essential that these
records are absolutely public records. Stick to the basics, and ask for documents that reflect basic democratic governance. Remember, you are conducting this audit to see how the average citizen is treated when requesting public documents. For college campuses, these documents could include faculty salaries, donor names, reported crimes on campus or operating budgets of academic departments. Request records from multiple years so you can see patterns in data.
3) Train your auditors carefully. Anticipate what challenges they might come across, like being asked what organization they represent. Create a one-page form that must be completed at each stop that details the visit. Note important details like the time and date, and don’t forget to request photocopies.
4) This audit is being conducted on behalf of your audience, so it is your job to act like Joe Citizen. Have notebooks ready in the car, but don’t take them with you. Dress professionally, like you do for work. Be polite and persistent. You are playing the role of citizen requester, so act like one.
5) Most public records laws do not require you to identify your name or occupation. If they do ask, answer with, “Do you have to know that before you can help me?” If the answer is yes, tell them FOI law doesn’t require it. If they persist, never lie!
6) Remember everything about your visit: who you spoke to, how you were received and how long it took to produce records. You should be able to get a record within two business days, or within the statutory minimum in your state. Otherwise, it’s considered “denied.”
7) If you get the records, put everything you can on the Web, including field notes. Be transparent about your methodology, and explain how you conducted the series. Finally, dig through those records, and file some award-winning stories.