University of Missouri School of Journalism associate professor and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coaliton Charles N. Davis wrote the following overview of this analysis of FOI responsiveness:
Freedom of information laws are only as good as the response mechanisms built into the laws themselves. After all, if citizens can't take action to enforce their right of access shy of filing suit, what good are FOI laws?
When it comes to responsiveness measures, not much good at all.
The Better Government Association (BGA) <http://www.bettergov.org/> and the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) <http://nfoic.org/> have united to review the recourse afforded citizens in the public records laws of all 50 states, and the conclusions make for some relentlessly depressing reading.
The tools available to citizens to enforce their rights under state FOI laws are, with rare exceptions, endemically weak.
The haphazard construction of state public records laws has resulted in an information gap that significantly affects the citizenry's ability to examine even the most fundamental actions of government, the study found.
"This national study shows that in the vast majority of states, citizens have little to no recourse when faced with unlawful denial of access under their state's FOI laws," said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "It's a cry for reform of FOI laws nationwide."
BGA researchers, led by Executive Director Jay Stewart, studied all 50 state public records laws, and no state earned better than Nebraska's and New Jersey’s 14 out of a possible 16 total. (More explanation regarding methodology will follow.) A stunning 38 states earned F ratings, with the rest scattered between C and D. The results are dismal, the details depressing even to hardened FOI observers who knew the national situation was grim.
"The Freedom of Information Act is an incredibly important tool in helping citizens understand how their government works," said Stewart. "Just as states compete amongst each other to be the best in education, business environment and tax policy, the states should compete to be the best in responding to citizens' requests for public information, information they pay for with their tax dollars."
The BGA rankings were prompted by years of run-ins with obstinate public officials. BGA investigators have been refused requests to examine state contracts and performance measures, denied everything from documentation of ambulance response times to the documents reviewed when making budgeting decisions, and ignored by officials in nearly every major office at one time or another. NFOIC coalition members share similar tales of frustration.
So the BGA decided to find out where its home state of Illinois stood in relationship to other states. Could Illinois be an aberration in an otherwise sunshine-laden country? Well, the original BGA study showed that Illinois was no anomaly—in fact, Illinois was in the muddled middle of a dozen or so states that could be described as spectacularly average. Illinois is now one of the brighter spots, having improved somewhat since 2002, but the bad news is that few states improved at all, despite more attention to FOI thanks to the efforts of open government groups.
To build its ratings, the BGA created a "gold standard" against which the laws of each state could be objectively and accurately measured in five categories: Response Time, Appeals, Expedited Review, Attorney's Fees & Costs, and Sanctions. The total points each state received were divided by the total points possible, resulting in a fixed-percentage score. The percentage was converted into a letter grade: 90-100%, A; 80-89%, B; 70-79%, C; 60-69%, D; less than 60%, F.
The NFOIC jumped on board, offering to bring news of the rankings to its member coalitions and to use the rankings to focus attention on the need for FOI reform in many states across the country.
"Although several states posted respectable numbers in our survey of their Freedom of Information Acts, it is clear that most states still have a lot of work to do in making their governments more accessible and transparent," Jay Stewart said. "Even a low score of 66% puts a state in the top ten of the rankings."
Click here for this overview on the National Freedom of Information Coalition website, which contains links to the study results and criteria in html and pdf formats.