Graduate students Craig Lyons, Samim Arif and DeJuan Foster conducted a reporting project to review the status of digital access within Indiana government agencies.
The Media School students’ project mimicked the 1997 audit done by the Indiana Coalition for Open Government and seven Indiana newspapers, which found many public officials were ignorant of state records laws and there were few consequences for those in violation, according to the report.
The Indiana Coalition for Open Government is partnered with the Media School in advocating for public access, according to the report.
The 2015 project found similar results. The students emailed public record requests to commissioners’ offices, sheriffs’ departments and health departments in 30 randomly selected counties.
The counties were widespread and represented different Indiana populations from urban areas such as St. Joseph and Vanderburgh to rural areas like Adams and Clinton. In total, 90 agencies were contacted, according to the report.
Two of these 90 agencies told the reporting team they did not have a public email address. This limited the report to 88 agencies. Of those, 48 responded to the requests within the legal limit of seven days. Of the 40 remaining agencies, only 10 responded to follow-up calls by the reporters.
This left nearly one-third of the agencies as non-respondents, therefore making them incompliant with the APRA requirements, according to the report.
“It’s important because the information that government agencies keep is there for the public,” Lyons said. “These agencies may be the keeper of these records, but they’re not their records.”
Reasons for not responding to the requests varied among agencies: emails didn’t go to the correct person, more information was needed or officials didn’t think they needed to respond to be in compliance with the law, according to the report.
Misinterpretations of the law seemed to be common. This was the case when the reporting team’s request for foodborne illness complaints was turned down based on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. After talking to legal experts the team found HIPAA might not always apply to such requests.
Misunderstandings were also prevalent when reporters requested search warrant returns from four different courthouses. Reporters obtained the documents and were allowed to take photos on their cell phones without any issue at Greene and Lawrence counties. However, reporters received mixed messages from clerks at Monroe and Owen county courthouses — varying day to day even within the same courthouse.
These kind of miscommunications are widespread and not necessarily unique to Indiana officials, Media School assistant professor and ICOG President Gerry Lanosga said.
“It’s definitely not an isolated issue, and it’s definitely not one that’s new,” Lanosga said. “There has always been resistance from government officials of agencies with providing information to the public.”
Moving frequently-requested documents online, such as daily police logs, could solve some of these discrepancies, Lyons said.
“The world has already moved online so there’s going to be a growing expectation that government needs to meet people where they are, and in this case that’s the Internet,” Lyons said.
The Indiana State Government’s Transparency Portal contains information on agency budgets, state contracts and agency performance measure, according to its website.
The Indiana Transparency Portal can be used as a model for county websites, but financial constraints for smaller counties may influence the move online, Lanosga said.
“This is going to be an issue that sticks with us for a long time, if not indefinitely,” Lanosga said. “It really is important for people to be vigilant about it and push agency officials to make better efforts to get that information to the public.”