FOIA office must improve website

NIU should make its information more transparent and easier to locate by including more links to documents and creating a daily Freedom of Information Act response log on the FOIA website.

The FOIA website allows the public to request information from the university like public employee contracts and salaries or university-generated documents.

People have a right to full disclosure of information that pertains to a public bodies “decisions, policies, procedures, rules, standards and other aspects of government activity that affect the conduct of government and the lives of any or all of the people”, according to the Illinois General Assembly’s website.

Current FOIA system

In November, NIU projected an increase in FOIA submissions from 212 in Fiscal Year 2013 to 450-550 by the end of FY 2016, according to a Northern Star article.

NIU receives two to six FOIA’s each day, according to an email sent by NIU Spokesperson Joe King. NIU only has two FOIA officers, FOIA Officer Joan Laurino and Brad Hoey, director of communications and marketing. According to the Illinois General Assembly, a public body must have at least one person employed as a trained FOIA officer.

With the requirement only being one FOIA officer, although NIU meets the standards of FOIA officers, it may be in NIU’s best interests to hire an additional FOIA officer who can respond to FOIA’s.

From January 1 to March 17, out of the 113 FOIA’s submitted, 25 were requests for police records, six were requests for employee contracts and three were in regards to P-card or university paid employee spending, according to a FOIA submitted by the Northern Star.

FOIA website

NIU should make its documents easier to find information on by expanding its links to helpful documents like information on tuition and enrollment, crime statistics, police reports and budget summaries.

The NIU FOIA website currently has links to nine different public documents including the Board of Trustees meeting agendas and minutes, the President’s reports and Institutional Research, among others. The University of Illinois has 44 links to public documents to assist people looking for public records.

The FOIA website could also be expanded to include a daily log of all FOIA’s responded to divided into police records and university records. The records should also include a search bar to allow the public to easily search past records which would increase trust and transparency with the university.

The university should also look into finding common themes in the types of documents being requested like P-card information or employee contracts because that information could be made public after being implemented with links to the information on the FOIA website.

U of I does this on its FOIA website with each document that they responded to uploaded online. They have a daily log of FOIA’s filed in 2015 and 2016 that include the name of the person filing the FOIA, the topic of the request, the date and the FOIA officers response in a PDF. In addition, the University of Illinois’ FOIA website has archives of previous FOIA’s from 2014.

This is helpful because the public can go online and see other peoples requests for FOIA and get the same information without having to FOIA. The officers also appear more transparent by making their information public. If FOIA officers are taking the time to respond, it would be worth their while to make that information public to everyone instead of just an individual or organization.

King said since January 2015, of the 598 requests filed, six people accounted for 167 of the FOIA’s at about 28 percent. Due to the large number of FOIA’s a small number of people are accountable for, the university should establish a relationship with the individuals or organizations in order to figure out what type of information they are seeking in order to make that information automatically public.