ICOG to Study Public Access Counselor’s Office

The Indiana Coalition of Open Government has received a national grant to survey users of the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s office.

The PAC office was initially created by executive order of the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon and later established in state law by the Indiana Legislature. The office receives formal and informal requests for legal advice regarding public access issues from media, citizens and government officials.

Using a grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, ICOG will partner with Indiana University’s School of Journalism and the Center for Survey Research to sample about 400 people who have asked for formal legal advice from the PAC. No entity has officially measured whether those users are actually getting access to the records and meetings they inquire about or whether they have to file litigation to pursue a successful outcome.

“This project fits perfectly within ICOG’s mission to educate the public about state access issues,” said Keith Robinson, current president of the group and Associated Press bureau chief in Indianapolis.

ICOG will release the survey results later this year on its Web site. The board will also ask for potential changes to legislation and policy based on the survey results.

“The NFOIC is pleased to support this research study, which will provide the first data on use of an access counselor’s office in Indiana, and one of the first studies of access counselors in the nation,” said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the NFOIC. “The Freedom of Information community will closely monitor the findings of this important research, as access counselors are becoming a major trend across the country.”

The NFOIC awarded ICOG a grant of $11,600 that will fund a telephone survey by the Center for Survey Research and analysis of the results by a graduate student at IU.

A key component of the PAC’s mission is to help citizens obtain public records from government agencies at all levels—from state to township. In the 2005-06 fiscal year, the PAC reported receiving about 1,880 formal and informal requests for advice.

The majority of requests seek advice about government records.

While it is clear that the PAC office has been effective in informing citizens of its existence and the services it provides, there is currently no system in place to measure the outcomes of the legal advice the PAC provides on a daily basis.

The survey will be used to measure those outcomes: Do citizens and journalists get the records they are entitled to receive by law or do they still have to resort to filing a lawsuit and suing to obtain access?

“An open government is essential for a democracy, so we see these kinds of research initiatives as important not just for journalists but for all citizens,” said Brad Hamm, dean of the School of Journalism. “The School has worked on research and training projects that benefit Indiana for decades, and this study, we hope, will make the state, its government and citizens better.”