Making Government Transparency More Transparent

In their quest to make public records requests easier, faster and cheaper, some governments are publishing them online for anyone to see.
by | December 2015

Tod Newcombe

Tod is a Governing columnist and the senior editor of our sister publication, Government Technology.

Public records requests have surged in recent years, thanks in large part to the transparency and open data movements. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which has been evaluating transparency in state spending for six years, reported that 2015 saw dramatic improvements in how and how much information was provided online. The same goes for cities, where the number of open data sets accessible to the public has climbed since the Open Knowledge Foundation began tracking them in 2013.

But not everyone is riding the transparency wave, especially when it comes to the handling of public records requests. Take Massachusetts. In many ways, the state is a leader in transparency and open data efforts, but when it comes to its public records law, it’s another story.

Massachusetts hasn’t updated its law in more than 40 years, making it one of the weakest in the nation, according to MuckRock, a media site that tracks Freedom of Information Act requests. In some instances, state agencies have taken months to provide documents or have demanded thousands, even millions of dollars for them. Part of the problem is that each state agency has its own procedures, resulting in widely different responses.

Of course, Massachusetts is not alone. Other state and local governments treat requests for public records as a burden and not as part of the job of government. But that’s slowly changing. Some governments are taking steps to make it easier, faster, and less costly to request and receive government information. A small but growing number of cities and counties are going even further and starting to share the responses to requests for public records by posting them online. The first to do this was Montgomery County, Md., which passed legislation in 2012 mandating the publishing of public records requests. The county’s website lists the person or organization who made the request, the date of the request, a description of the document and a link to the information.

Hans Riemer, the county councilmember who wrote Montgomery’s 2012 law, says the requests have public value and should be shared publicly. “It takes the process away from insiders and makes it public,” he says.

Another benefit: It’s a way to lower costs by reducing the amount of staff time spent answering multiple requests for the same information. Riemer adds that public sharing could also dissuade people who make spurious requests, “because now the whole world knows what they are doing.”

Other cities that have portals for sharing public records include Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington, D.C. There are also a number of single agency portals, such as the Illinois Board of Education and the Chicago Public Schools. But Montgomery County appears to be the only government entity that mandates request information be publicly posted.

If there’s any resistance to the policy of sharing requests and responses for public records, it comes from the media. Journalists are heavy users of public records and have expressed concerns that publication of their requests, along with the documents they have received from the request, could give competing news organizations advance notice of a developing story.

Meanwhile, Riemer has watched for nearly three years how the law has impacted Montgomery County. He thinks the publishing of public records requests has made a difference in one vital way. “I think it generates a positive feeling among the public that government is listening and responding.”

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