The Illinois Freedom of Information Act stands as citizens’ best tool for learning what their government is up to. It springs from — as the statute declares — “the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of government” and gives individuals access to existing government records. It promises as full a record of government information as can be responsibly distributed.

Prior to the passage of the federal FOIA in 1966, government transparency was largely at the discretion of the government itself. If officials chose not to share information on their activities, there was little the press or public could do. The Illinois FOIA, passed in 1984, gives individuals not only the right to state and local records but acts as a legal crowbar in guaranteeing the right to know.

As a former journalist and now an assistant professor at Bradley University, a student and I set out to test whether Illinois counties are fulfilling this commitment. We conducted an audit of the Illinois FOIA, submitting 102 requests to agencies across 34 randomly chosen counties.

We found that in many ways the law is working quite well. We also discovered it is failing citizens in one important facet and that these failures were concentrated in Illinois’s smaller and poorer counties.

The sample of public bodies performed admirably in responding to requests and supplying the sought records. Our study documented 79 percent of the requests were closed by the five-day deadline, a laudable number for an access mechanism often plagued by delay. Even more, nearly all of those requests returned a positive outcome. More than 77 percent of the requests produced the records we sought, and another 21 percent of the agencies searched and did not have the records we were looking for.

But we also learned Illinois counties are dreadful in meeting other elements of the statute. The Illinois FOIA dictates that all public bodies must post specific information online, including details on the agency’s purpose, location and budget. It also requires publication of information on FOIA procedures, the designated FOIA contact and potential FOIA fees.

Our audit found that less than half of this information was available online. Only 51 percent of the agencies provided the name of their FOIA officer and only 45 percent published information on where to submit a FOIA request. Just over one-third of the agencies produced an explanation of possible fees incurred in the FOIA process.

These disappointing trends are amplified in smaller and poorer counties. Counties with a population below the sample median were 73 percent less likely to have the compulsory information posted online. Counties with a median household income below the sample median were a striking 94 percent less likely to have provided important information about how the FOIA process works and where to submit a FOIA request.

These results are disconcerting. The law, at its best, is transactional, a direct question and response. When agencies don’t provide the requisite information, it becomes a maze requiring a search for appropriate contact information. It introduces uncertainty and makes the process intimidating. Without details on FOIA procedures or an email address to submit the request, the law is unworkable for many.

The statute places responsibility for the successes and failures of the Illinois FOIA with the office of the Attorney General, more specifically with the Public Access Counselor — a post created by a 2009 amendment to help oversee state transparency laws.

The Public Access Counselor’s charge is to aid citizens in the process of obtaining public records. A simple step in advancing the mission is using the power of the Attorney General’s Office to ensure public bodies comply with the statutory posting requirements.

The law is intended for the public writ large. The Illinois FOIA should provide equal access whether you have a GED or a J.D. It should serve Downstate and Uptown alike. With lax oversight of statutory posting requirements, the law loses readability, making it significantly more difficult to use and ultimately more challenging for the public to realize their right to know.

It’s time the Attorney General’s Office held public bodies accountable for their failures in meeting statutory posting requirements. Without this necessary information, government transparency in the state falls well short of what the public deserves.

— A.Jay Wagner is an assistant professor at Bradley University, where he studies access to government information and teaches journalism and media law. He received his doctorate from Indiana University in 2016. The audit of the Illinois FOIA can be read at http://www.ajaywagner.com/2017-illinois-foia-audit