A team of Indiana University students who surveyed county agencies found that more than half failed to comply with records requests under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.
The reporting project comes 18 years after the nation’s first statewide audit of public records access. This time, the focus was on access to digital information at the local level in the Hoosier state, according to the Indiana Coalition for Open Government.
The findings, conducted under the direction of IU assistant professor Gerry Lanosga, are available in formats designed for publication, including free-use stories, sidebars and briefs.
Editors can download the content at http://indianacog.org/icog-news/problems-and-opportunities-electronic-access-in-indiana.
Graduate students Craig Lyons, Samim Arif and DeJuan Foster, who were all enrolled in Lanosga’s investigative journalism class in the spring, contacted 90 agencies in a random sample of 30 of the state’s 92 counties.
They included sheriff’s departments, country commissioners’ offices and health departments, according to the Indiana Coalition for Open Government.
Of the 90 agencies contacted for their report, only 48 responded to initial email requests for information within seven days, as required by the Access to Public Records Act. This requirement can be met with a simple acknowledgment of the request.
The reasons for not responding were varied: Emails didn’t go to the correct person, more information was needed, or officials didn’t think they needed to respond.
Another 10 agencies did respond afterward to follow-up calls from the student journalists.
But one-third, or 30 agencies, never responded to either the initial email or follow-up attempts by the reporters.
Thirty-three of the agencies that responded said they did not have the documents being requested.
“The project illustrates that barriers exist in Indiana when it comes to getting public information online from local agencies,” said Lyons, a Maine native who spent more than seven years working at daily newspapers in his home state and in New Hampshire. “The project shows that Indiana county agencies, in some instances, are trying to adapt and others aren’t.”
Counties in the survey included those with urban areas, such as St. Joseph, Hamilton, Lake, Marion, Vanderburgh and Vigo, as well as those with more rural areas, such as Adams, Clinton, Scott and Sullivan.
Lanosga also is president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, which partnered with the IU Media School on the project.
He worked for nearly two decades as a print and broadcast journalist in Indiana, his work receiving honors such as the duPont-Columbia Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, Sigma Delta Chi’s public service award, and the Freedom of Information medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors.
In 1997, the coalition – then known as FOIndiana – served as a resource to seven Indiana newspapers, which together produced a series revealing that many public officials in Indiana were ignorant of state records laws and faced few consequences.
The Indiana Coalition for Open Government is in its 20th year and has an administrative partnership with the IU Media School.
Given how society has shifted to electronic forms of communication, such as smartphones, tablets and computers, Lanosga’s students wanted to explore the effectiveness of email requests for public records.
They also wanted to determine whether requesters could easily obtain records in electronic format and the ability of requesters to use their own equipment – specifically cell phone cameras – to make copies of public records.
Of the 17 agencies that did provide documents to the IU student journalists, 15 were willing to do so through electronic copies. Out of the 90 agencies contacted, two said they did not have public email addresses.
“There are, of course, a number of Indiana counties that do not have perhaps the most advanced computer setups,” Lanosga said. “Depending on the records, some counties are working with hard copies, and they might have to scan some records in order to make it an electronic copy, which they are not obligated to do.”
The student journalists spoke with Luke Britt, Indiana public access counselor, who told them that agencies should make reasonable efforts to provide electronic records to people who ask for them.
Under the law, public agencies must respond to electronic requests.
Historically, sheriff’s departments have been among the most difficult agencies in terms of public access, but the student journalists found some of them to be very responsive.
Their reporting found that St. Joseph County, home to South Bend, has made it a priority to create and maintain a website with routine information such as daily logs.
“Records requests will always be important, and agencies need to comply, but to the extent that they can, they should just start making this information available online,” Lanosga said.