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Follow Oakland’s Lead on Public Records Requests

Last week, we celebrated Sunshine Week by inviting three guest experts to present to the Peer Network about the future of managing public records. Each are working to change the burdensome request process that is practiced by many of our nation’s cities and states:

  • Karen Boyd, communications director for the City of Oakland, Calif. — a 2013 Code for America Fellowship partner city

  • Richa Agarwal, co-founder of PostCode.io, and 2013 Code for America Fellow

  • John Kaehny, open data expert and executive director of Reinvent Albany

  • The discussion shed light on the records request system, discussed how to streamline the fulfillment process internally, and explained how technology is a component of improving it.

    The status quo of the public records request process can be frustrating and opaque for residents and city staff alike. The process is typically closed — meaning that once someone submits a request they have no idea where is it in the funnel or when it will be delivered. Staff are often overstretched and lack any streamlined, consistent way to deal with inbound requests. The process is decentralized among various city departments, so there is no way for the municipality to account for the costs of all the requests. And with no public archiving of requests — requests are often repeated, requiring unnecessary staff time. Since the process is closed it can also become highly politicized, and in some cases requests from certain parties are prioritized over others.

    New York state spends $12 to $15 million a year on over 40,000 requests — and that was only known after John Kaehny used FOIL to access that information. Hopefully that spending number will drop once New York state passes its OpenFOIL bill based on the three principals of centralization, automation, and transparency, setting a trend to spread across the nation.

    Kaehny identified three pillars of an ideal public records request process, modeled after the 311 system:

  • Centralization: Streamlining the process and creating metrics on cost.

  • Automation: Speeding the process and making a welcoming online platform.

  • Transparency: Leveling the field and creating accountability for equal deliverables.

  • Karen Boyd explained how they’re putting this into practice in Oakland through their new public records request system, RecordTrac, developed last year in collaboration with Code for America.

    Oakland passed its Sunshine Ordinance in 1996. Over the next few years massive deficit resulted in staff cuts, halting progress on improving the records request process. The burdensome system continued to eat into valuable staff time.

    Boyd launched a Steering Committee composed of all the departments involved from both compliance and operational standpoints, including members of her own Department of Communications, the City Administrators Office, the City Attorney’s Office, the Public Ethics Commission, and the City Clerks Office. This collaboration was essential to launching a successful new process and showed how much preparation is needed before technology can be implemented.

    “We needed to leverage the kind of thinking and problem solving approaches that the startup world and technology sector are using to fundamentally change how we conduct the people’s business in the government sector.”

    - Karen Boyd

    The 2013 Code for America Fellowship came at an opportune time for Oakland to tackle this important issue. Oakland chose the public records process as the focus of its Fellowship because it is a core function of the city involving all departments and addressed the City’s fundamental value of transparency.

    Oakland focused on four foundational priorities throughout the project:

  • Embracing technology: Beyond the app — the mindset and process.

  • Reengineering internal process.

  • Focusing on people: Both staff and the public.

  • Partnering with the community to build trust.

  • This framing helped shift the tone of the process from antagonistic to collaborative. Agarwal and the rest of the Oakland team developed RecordTrac and launched the site within five months.

    RecordTrac is a centralized, user-friendly site that provides a simple public platform to view and request records. The site includes a search function that sorted through all requested records to date, putting an end to repetitive record pulling. It also allows users to track the status of a request. The new process has sped up turnaround time and reduced staff time by eliminated repeats. Internal communication has improved and the City now has better data about the amount of requests, allowing for better staffing decisions.

    In the five months since RecordTrac launch, Oakland has processed 5,000 requests — compared to just 2,500 in the entire year prior. More than 50,000 documents have been viewed through the platform — showing  potential for significant cost savings and a strong argument for cities to publicly archive requests.

    Oakland is now using this process to influence their open data policy. Armed with data showing what information is most in demand, Boyd and her team are able to approach other departments with persuasive rationale for why sharing this data openly makes sense.

    “Where Oakland is right now is the future.”

    - John Kaehny

    For other cities looking for best practices in public record requests management, follow Oakland’s lead and look for ways to make the process streamlined and transparent from both a government and citizen perspective — and create a close-knit relationship between public records and open data.

    Watch the full webinar.