How proactive release of public records could help lower costs

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Proactively releasing public records flips the old system that required the public to ask for access to information. Proactive disclosure gives information to the public without requiring anyone to ask for it. It’s a key principle of open data and creates a foundation for better public records systems.

One of the big questions about transitioning to a practice of proactive public records disclosure is how it will affect costs. Open data policies encouraging the proactive release of information have been spreading across the country for the past few years, but we have yet to find an analysis of the fiscal impact on the public records process.

However, estimates suggest that proactive disclosure should help reduce costs by reducing the number of public records requests that require government response, especially if the proactively-released information is the subject of frequent request.

Reinvent Albany, part of a coalition proposing that New York City create a central portal for the Freedom of Information Law to streamline public records access, recently gathered information about cases where sharing public records online has been estimated to reduce costs for records managers. They found cost savings at the federal level ranging from 33-90 percent for digitizing the public records process. Reinvent Albany estimates New York City could achieve 66 percent cost savings by creating a portal for digitizing the public records process, saving $10 million out of an estimated $15 million spent annually on its public records system. The savings come from a mix of reduced printing costs, decreased staff time from answering fewer requests, automated correspondence and redaction, and decreased or eliminated costs for mailing documents.

These findings support the claim that fewer and more streamlined public records requests could decrease costs for governments, but the proactive release of information has also given rise to a new concern among records managers: what if more people start calling or emailing with questions about the information being put online? What if proactively sharing information results in more correspondence with the public about that information?

That’s a real possibility. It’s also a good sign of an engaged public, which governments should welcome. There are a few steps that can be taken to help answer as many questions as possible about the information where it’s being shared. Publishing metadata, showing how information was created, and providing a full list of sets of information can provide context that improves understanding of the information being released. These steps should help, but they are no guarantee that there will be fewer questions posed to records managers in general.

As the front line for information requests, records managers should be adequately funded to meet the demands of keeping the public informed. Benchmarking can help determine whether the public is interacting more, or less, with records managers and indicate whether increased funding might be necessary.

Benchmarking will be important for starting to provide more concrete answers about how proactive release of public records is impacting costs. For now, unfortunately, the only answers available are mostly based on estimates.

Governments looking to proactive release of information as potential cost savings should also take into account other, and sometimes less quantifiable, benefits of open data. Crafting strong open data policies can help ensure that transitioning the public records system into the era of open data has the necessary funding to be successful and provides the fullest benefits possible. Switching to a new approach can take time, but we’ll be continuing to document the impacts and providing resources to help along the way.