Crowdsourcing a Public Records Audit
How We Tested Students’ Basic Access to Public Records from Ohio Universities
Throughout our four years studying journalism at Ohio University, my friend Will Drabold and I have swapped stories of our flawed FOIA requests. When we started working for the Athens, Ohio-based student newspaper, the Post, we were constantly frustrated by getting records from the university months after we submitted a request. As our requests became more detailed or specific, we seemed to get more pushback. Before we left for summer break 2015, Will suggested that we audit Ohio universities’ public records compliance, and I jumped at the opportunity to figure out if the system was really as flawed as I imagined it to be. Will and I couldn’t audit all of Ohio’s universities on our own, so we decided to crowdsource the project, working with more than 30 student journalists at eight news outlets throughout the state.
A university-focused public records audit is not a new idea in our state. To my knowledge, the last time OU was audited was in 2006, by the Ohio University Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. At the local and state government level, the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and state news organizations frequently conduct statewide audits. Will and I studied the survey from the 2006 audit, but we wanted to create our own protocol. He had participated in the 2014 local government audit while he interned for the Columbus Dispatch, but he wanted to adapt that process to fit a student newsroom. We planned to ask for different records, some of which we had asked for previously with varying degrees of success, and all of which we knew to be public. We wanted to test the record requests in-person, and we wanted our auditors to remain anonymous through any suspicious questions. Most of all, we wanted to work only with student reporters from our local newsroom and at other universities.
Testing Public-Record Accessibility
Personally, I had one primary agenda I wanted to test: the accessibility of public records to the average student. When I started reporting as a freshman, the process for requesting records seemed convoluted and complicated. I was given a jargony Word document template, with a letterhead that had to be converted to PDF before I could submit the request. When I made the requests, I had to send it to my staff editor and the managing editor, so we could debate ad nauseam what specific wording OU Legal Affairs staff would accept. There was no way I’d be prepared to get records if I didn’t have this journalism background. Even if most students couldn’t be bothered to request documents, I reasoned that at least a few would need to see an official document for some reason.
What the Law Requires
Public records laws vary by state, and Ohio’s Sunshine Laws are very accommodating theoretically. According to Ohio Revised Code, records should be made available “promptly,” and public offices are required to keep all records deemed public in “a manner that can be made available for inspection or copying.” If a public officer asks the name of a requestor or a reason for the request, that officer must also tell the requestor that they do not have to respond, and that lack of response should not impact the success of the record request. The Ohio Attorney General has a helpful website that provides public records information to citizens and record training guides to public employees. With such clear and direct instructions for requesting public records from state and local government bodies, it seems unjust that students and citizens are expected to know this complicated process for one record from OU, a public university bound to state laws.
The Regular-Person Experience
While reporting on OU, I had never personally made an in-person request. I was quickly told by other student journalists to send an official email to OU General Counsel John Biancamano and be prepared to wait. The only reason I knew to email OU’s legal team for faculty salaries or the OU Athletics’ budget was because I had been trained by journalists. If I was a curious Athens resident, I would probably start a record request by walking into the Human Resources or OU Athletics’ offices and asking the person at the front desk. OU offers little information about how to make public records requests. A quick Google search reveals OU’s public records policy, which states that OU Legal Affairs is the designated office for public records requests, but that same page also leads requestors to the Legal Affairs’ old address (OU Legal Affairs is at 160 W. Union, and has been at least since I came here). But from a pure reading of Ohio Revised Code 149.43 (B) (2), it would seem that anyone who walks into a public office should run into public employees who are prepared to handle record requests and able to turn them around quickly, if not immediately. Though I had not tried before, my past experiences with email record requests made a speedy, question-free response from an OU office seem like a fantasy. We wanted to test the results.
Before we conducted the audit, Will and I contemplated following up with Legal Affairs responses through email in order to see how successful those requests are, and how long it would take to receive requests from Legal Affairs. In the end, we decided not to, primarily because of our own time constraints. If we sent emails for all of our Legal Affairs referrals, we would either have to keep track of those ourselves, or keep track of the auditors keeping track of those requests, likely up until (or beyond) the first day of Sunshine Week, when we planned to publish our stories.
How We Did It
Will and I started by creating a list of records to request, and vetting them with some of our advisors to make sure they were legally accessible. We wanted to test some basic requests (a recent College of Education budget, the provost’s performance evaluation) alongside some challenging yet legally permissible requests (the names of students found responsible in a crime, the amount spent by a university development office on travel).
With our list ready, we started contacting student newsrooms to see if they request records for their universities following our set procedures. Most responded enthusiastically, and we kept in touch with video chats and endless streams of emails. If a university did not have a student newsroom or the editors we contacted were not interested, we decided to send auditors from our newsroom, The Post, to visit and audit those universities.
We wanted the process to be as scientific as possible, so Will and I created procedures for requesting the records on the day of our audit, Jan. 29:
- Auditors would walk into the office where the record was most likely created and stored, such as the executive office for the provost’s evaluation, or the sports administration building for football ticket sales.
- Auditors would verbally ask for the record without stating their name or other identifying information, and mentally record how the officials would respond.
- The only contact information they would provide was an email we created specifically for the audit.
- Once outside the university office, auditors would send us details of the responses they received in a Google form, and code that response in the categories we created: Granted, Obstructed, Denied, or Directed to Legal Affairs.
Will and I spent the day of the audit in his apartment, constantly refreshing the page and tallying our responses.
Making Cross-Org Collaboration Work
This project required a lot of trust in other student journalists. We started connecting with other student publications in September solely because we wanted to make sure they understood our process and would be willing to follow our protocol. Communication became crucial, but it was not easy to maintain. Will and I held Google video chats, created instructive documents, and sent the Google form long before the audit to make sure everyone involved understood our process. This also gave us the chance to get more feedback on our process and results, having seven different student editors watching our work.
Keeping up with the distant newsrooms was a challenge, since the other editors had other pressing obligations that were more memorable simply because they were local. Will and I became pests, resorting to calling and social-media-stalking just to make sure editors and auditors had received our emails. Through the audit, I came to understand how much distance shapes any attempted collaboration with other newsrooms and reporters, but I owe the success of our project to the editors’ leadership in this project.
We unfortunately had to exclude one of the participating universities from our responses. As typical office hours drew to a close, we noticed we had three records from Kent State University that were not documented in our response form, and further investigation showed that some of their requests hadn’t been completed, or had been completed using a different process from the one we specified. To keep our data clean, we excluded all responses from Kent State.
What We Learned
In the end, my hypothesis proved pretty sound. Requesting records, at least at universities, does not seem to be an intuitive or accessible process. Some auditors reported being pushed through different offices, only to be referred to Legal Affairs. Some were doggedly asked for their names, or probed if they were reporters. One auditor at my own university was asked to define open records law for the university officials she asked, and later told that all records in the office she visited were not public. A university that touts itself as having one of the best journalism schools in the nation should not be simultaneously obstructing its students from filing public records requests.
In my experience as a student journalist, reporting on OU can feel like standing in the middle of a massive mechanized assembly line and shouting “stop!” If the assembly line seems to be in working order, no one is going to stop what they’re doing. Will and I have talked amongst ourselves and with other journalists about OU’s pained, lethargic responses to records requests. Reporters at OU and other universities had countless public record anecdotes, while legislators throughout the nation add more university records to exemption lists. If we could bring students from other universities together to show their public records’ battles, we hoped it would give our complaints a little more clout.
Though Will and I both graduate in the spring, I hope that students could replicate the process in the future and put their own university’s records laws to the test. Our full audit results can be found at OhioAudit.org, and the code I used to create the interactive visualizations is up on GitHub.