As the open data movement continues to grow around the country, there’s increasing recognition of the need for a complementary robust public records system to support access to information and the greater ecosystem of openness. Though the goal of open data is to move the sharing of public records from a reactive to a proactive process, in reality not all information can or will be released at once. It will take time for governments to create open data portals that give the public the broad and deep online access to records that’s needed.
A new tool for openness is emerging at the intersection of the reactive public records request-and-response process and proactive open data: the public records portal. More state and municipal governments across the country are setting up websites, styled like open data portals, to proactively share the requests they receive for public records and the responses to those requests.
It’s a smart move for several reasons. If information isn’t yet ready to be released as open data, sharing the responses to requests for specific public records serves as an intermediate step of proactive disclosure. This could benefit governments, too: sharing responses to public records requests could help lower costs by reducing staff time spent answering multiple requests for the same information. It’s why looking at frequently-requested public records is one of the best practices for prioritizing dataset release. If information is requested frequently, why not save staff time and give people faster, easier access in the first place?
Looking at places around the country with public records portals shows there are several ways to approach the sharing of requests and responses. It’s worth diving into the pros and cons of these different approaches to highlight best practices and shine a light on how other places looking to do this could move forward.
If public records portals are going to be a valuable intermediate step between public records responses and open data, there are a few things the portals should do to live up to their full potential:
- Provide information about public records requests — At a minimum, information should be available about when a request was made and what was requested. Some public records portals also share information about who made a request, including the requester’s name and the name of any affiliated organization.
- Provide information about public records responses — Information about when a request was received, what organization is handling the request, and correspondence about the request, including the response documents, should all be available. Some public records portals also share the name and contact information for specific people within government who are the point of contact for handling a request. Providing public access to the responsive documents for a request has to be done while safeguarding sensitive information, of course. In some cases, portions of responses may need to be redacted. Explanations for any redactions, including citations of any relevant laws, should always be provided.
- Allow for downloading information in reusable open formats — For information about requests and responses to be as useful as possible, it should be easily accessible and reusable. That means there should be an option to download the information in an open format, and the documents shouldn’t have any licenses that restrict reuse. Ideally, this information would also be available for bulk download. Attaching a unique identifier to each public records request could also help with tracking, analysis and reusability of the information.
- Provide context information about the public records process — Public records portals can and should serve as more than just places to find information on requests and responses. Visitors to the websites should also be able to learn about that specific government’s public records laws and how they can submit their own request. Without this information, public records portals lack context vital to understanding what is there.
Examining the pros and cons of existing portals
Public records portals have appeared in several municipalities in the past few years. Each of the existing portals takes a slightly different approach, and each comes with its own advantages and opportunities for improvement.
Chicago, for example, allows users to browse public records requests and responses through a list of the nearly 40 city departments. Each department’s list of public records requests are displayed with the requester’s name, any affiliated organization, a description of the request, the date received, and the due date (determined by public records laws). The logs date back to 2010, can be downloaded in a variety of formats, and are available through the city’s primary open data portal. Unfortunately, some of the links on the department listing appear to be broken. Clicking on Zoning and Land Use Planning leads to an error, for example, as do several other links, though the data is still available through the main open data portal. The portal does at least include links to more information about the city’s public records law to help provide context.
While being thorough with sharing information about public records requests, the major thing missing from Chicago’s system is any information about responses to those requests. There is no information available about whether a request received a response and, if so, what that response included. This makes the portal ultimately fairly useless as a true intermediate step for public records disclosure. It is proactive release of information about who is requesting records, but it’s not actually furthering the disclosure of any public records beyond that. It is Chicago’s government choosing to make the public’s actions transparent without making government more transparent.
The good news is that, for the information it does make available, Chicago’s public records data is downloadable in a variety of formats. It’s a shame that the city doesn’t take the opportunity to make information about responses just as open.
There are public records portals that do well with sharing responses to requests. The portal recently launched in Montgomery County, Md., for example, allows anyone to view requests and responses to requests submitted to the County.
For each public records request, the portal includes a request number, the requester’s name, any affiliated organization, a description of the request, the way in which the request was received, the lead department for responding, the data-owning department, the date a response was posted, who published the response, and a link to the response documentation. It’s a fairly thorough account of the request and response side of the public records process. All of the information can be downloaded in a variety of formats, too. The one best practice missing is that the portal does not appear to link to any additional information about the public records law. For the purposes of being an intermediate step to proactive release of information, though, Montgomery County’s setup works quite well (and it is mandated by law, so its continued presence is assured).
Oakland, Calif., is another place proving it is possible to share responses to public records requests. Oakland’s portal displays a unique request number, the date the request was received, a description of the request, and the relevant department and point of contact. Clicking on individual request listings shows more details, including a routing history for processing and any documents that have been shared in response. In some cases, it simply notes that documents were sent by mail or that documents are available for inspection in person.
The download format for responses varies depending on the request. It appears most responses are shared just as PDFs. Even some responsive documents that appear to have been in spreadsheet format at one time are in PDF. There does not appear to be a way to download the request information.
When it comes to providing context about the public records process, Oakland’s portal does allow users to submit a request for information through a simple online form. There doesn’t appear to be a link to the city’s public records law, however, which seems especially important for helping inform users who are submitting requests through the portal.
Washington, DC, launched a public records portal this summer that became the center of a considerable deal of attention. What appears to be missing from coverage so far is a critical eye on some of the shortfalls of that portal.
The portal does allow for browsing and searching records responses, including the responsive document name and the date it was published. Most responses can be downloaded in PDF or TIF format. There is no public information available about requests, however. Users must register to submit or track a request, and they can only view information about their own requests. Users are also notified that there are some departments that don’t participate in the request process through the portal — public records requests have to be filed directly with those governmental bodies.
To help provide context to the public records portal, request and appeal information is linked. Agency-specific instructions and exemption codes are are also available. Not all of these pages have unique URLs, unfortunately, which decreases the ease of sharing the information. Sessions on the portal also tend to time out, creating an inconvenient extra step with refreshing the website.
Agency and community portals
Municipalities aren’t the only ones using public records portals as an intermediate step between reactive and proactive disclosure. Some specific government agencies are taking the initiative and setting up custom ways of sharing public records requests and responses.
The Illinois State Board of Education has a FOIA requests portal that includes a log number for each request, the date received, the requester and affiliated organization, descriptions of requests, the response from the agency, and notes on whether any documents were provided along with links to relevant materials in some instances. Unfortunately, in some cases where it says documents were provided, there is no link to view or download the documents. Of those documents that are available for download, the format varies but appears to consist primarily of Excel spreadsheets or PDFs. The archives for FOIA requests and responses do go back through 2010, though, and all of them include log numbers for tracking. A link is also provided to help users find more information on relevant public records laws.
Chicago Public Schools also has its own public records portal that allows for browsing information about requests and responses. Requests can be searched by the record description, status, or name of requester, or sorted by date received or completed. The portal allows users to submit a FOIA request and see the status of that request if they create a login. Without a login, other users can still see the status of a request, including whether there was an exemption denial, if there were no responsive records, or if there was a full release. For some requests, responsive documents are available as a download, often in PDF or as an Excel spreadsheet. The main page of the portal helpfully links to answers for a variety of questions about the public records process.
Some communities and civic groups are taking matters into their own hands, too, creating public records portals for sharing government documents (like the Ann Arbor Area Government Document Repository in Ann Arbor, Mich.), and sometimes adding features that simplify the process of submitting public records requests (like MuckRock, FOIA Machine, and WhatDoTheyKnow.) We’ll explore those projects in another blog post soon.
It’s clear that public records portals are appearing in more places and creating new opportunities for accessing information. It’s important to acknowledge, though, that encouraging the use of public records portals as an intermediate step between responding to individual public records requests and proactively sharing information online does not sit well with all open government advocates. Some journalists have expressed concerns that having governments share responses to public records requests online could give competing news organizations advance-notice of a developing story, eliminating the original edge of one media outlet over the other. This could be especially true, some journalists worry, if requests for public records are posted in close-to-real-time or even long enough before a request is fulfilled, giving another news organization time to make the same request and receive the same documents nearly as quickly.
There are several ways to help ease these concerns. In cases where there is a concern that one journalist could “steal” another journalist’s story by seeing information about a public records request, this is not a new reality in all cases — just a more digital one. Technically, in some places, public records requests themselves are subject to public records laws, meaning journalists could request information on what their competitors are seeking. Even without the presence of a public records portal, a public records request is not necessarily private information. If another journalist wanted to see what someone else was requesting, they could likely already do that. A public records portal may make access to that information easier, but it doesn’t change the underlying reality of the potential.
As for public records portals allowing other journalists to see the documents released in response to a request, in most cases the journalist working on a story with those records already has a lead on what to look for, what sources to contact, and how to build a story around those documents. A journalist without the proper context looking at the same documents might have no idea about what story is being pursued or what they should even look for in the documents. Journalists should trust in their work enough — and perhaps be a little less humble — when they catch themselves thinking that letting other journalists know what information they’ve requested or letting them see the responsive documents will mean someone else can have the whole story just as easily.
Beyond those more practical reasonings, journalists should embrace public records portals as an opportunity to weigh their interests and the interests of the greater public good. Public records portals are an important step for freeing information from the dreaded filing cabinets that are only available during office hours with the assistance of a government staffer. Traditional public records processes are an outdated method for accessing public information, and journalists should support opportunities to move beyond it. Journalists are natural advocates for open government — many of them rely on public records and open meetings to do their jobs and hold governments accountable. It’s why journalists often put on their advocacy hats and come together around a variety of open government issues, especially during Sunshine Week each year, which revolves heavily around advocacy. While it’s fair that journalists have some concerns about the potential impacts of public records portals, those concerns shouldn’t hold back a crucial development for open government and the greater public good. If journalistic endeavors are threatened in some other way by public records portals, journalists should start a conversation around the issue and work collaboratively toward solutions.
Public records portals can show the way forward for access to information. It’s encouraging to see more places creating public records portals to fill this need, even if there are still improvements to be made. Hopefully, the proactive presence of a public records portal in the places that do have one signals that their governments will also move full-speed ahead with open data. Sharing information about public records requests and releasing the responses is a good step, but it can’t be the final step. We’ll be keeping an eye on the progress.