Seven Attributes of a 21st Century Freedom of Information Law

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act is woefully outdated and geared towards empowering bureaucrats to withhold information from the public. The State legislature created the law as a mechanism to provide citizens with access to information about how the government serves the public. In practice, the Act has provided little access as government agencies have disregarded both the spirit and letter of the Act.

The current bill in the Illinois House of Representatives corrects some of the law’s existing flaws. However, the bill still reflects a 20th century approach to a 21st century problem of how government can and should use the Internet and information technologies to assist their work and their ability to release information to the public. The current rewrite that has been put forward by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan still lacks the necessary embrace of 21st century technologies. The old law does not need adjustment, it needs to be thrown out and a new law needs to be drafted with a concentration on how current and future technology can be harnessed to serve public access needs while creating more efficient public agencies.

Any rewrite of the old law or new legislation should include the following seven points that are a good start at embracing the current state of technology.

Digitizing Government Operations

Government agencies need to be required to switch from paper to digitizing their operations to facilitate efficient storage and release of information to the public.

Digital Release of Data

The use of data storage software that can export data while simultaneously removing data that may be exempt from disclosure must be mandated.

Uniformity

Information needs to be kept & released in a uniformed fashion in association with other related public institutions, i.e., police agencies & prosecutorial agencies. This is to provide the public with the ability to efficiently track information across agencies.

FOIA Document on file with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office

Agencies must be mandated to produce a document kept on file with the Attorney General’s Office about what data the Agency produces and what is and is not open with explanations for why data is closed. This will allow the Attorney General’s Office to mandate access prior to a request and legal battle. Once this document is put on file agencies must be mandated to keep the public data online for download and also be required to update that data on a regular basis. Agencies should be required to keep and make public a schedule for when this data will be updated. This will significantly reduce expenditures by public agencies in handling requests because there will be no need for a citizen to file a request.

Attorney General’s Office Audit of FOIA File

The Attorney General’s Office should be empowered to carry out regular audits of the FOIA files kept by public agencies to measure the agency’s compliance with public requests. Penalties for a track record of non-compliance must be severe and public. Penalties for ill kept records also need to be severe.

Scalable Penalties

Penalties against agencies for non-compliance must be mandated and be scalable to the size of the institution. While a $1,000 fine would be significant to a small policing agency in downstate Illinois, it would not achieve the needed political consequences for agencies in Chicago or Springfield.

Redress in Court Maintained

While the Chicago Justice Project supports the concept that decisions by the Attorney General’s Office of Public Access Counselor will be binding on public agencies, this should not limit the ability of citizens to seek review of denials by either the public agency or the Public Access Counselor in court.