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PRA Performance Audit: The Costs of Fulfilling PRA Requests


September 14, 2016 by Flannary Collins
Category: Public Records Act

PRA Performance Audit: The Costs of Fulfilling PRA Requests

This blog post is the first in a three-part series analyzing the State Auditor’s Office’s (SAO’s) PRA performance audit: The Effect of Public Records Requests on State and Local GovernmentsClick the following for Part 2 or Part 3.

The SAO recently published a performance audit analyzing the costs incurred by Washington’s public agencies in fulfilling public records requests. The numbers are striking: over the most recent year, public agencies spent over $60 million in costs to fulfill public records requests but recovered only $350,000—less than 1% of those costs.

This blog post will provide a general overview of the audit with a particular focus on the SAO’s findings related to the costs incurred by public agencies, with future blog posts focusing on other aspects of the audit.

Why Was this Audit Conducted?

The impetus behind the audit was the State Legislature’s 2015 directive to the SAO to provide them with the costs that Washington’s public agencies incur when providing paper and electronic copies of records in response to public records requests (PRRs). Ultimately, the SAO’s audit provided that and more, identifying:

  • The nature and volume of PRRs that Washington’s public agencies receive, and the overall cost of responding to those requests;
  • Policies other states have adopted to address records requests issues and to recover costs associated with fulfilling requests; and
  • Practices public agencies can use to manage records and responses, and to make records more accessible.

Who Provided the Data for the Audit?

The SAO sent out a survey to 2,363 public agencies, asking a series of questions about the volume, nature, and costs of the PRRs received by each agency. Not all recipients responded; counties, cities and towns, and the state government had the highest survey response rates:

  • Counties: 82% responded, representing 98% of Washington’s total population.
  • Cities and towns: 58% responded, representing 79% of the state’s total population.
  • State government: 57% of state agencies, offices, and departments responded.

As an expected corollary, the top recipients of PRRs in the most recent year were the same players:

  • Cities and towns: 40%
  • State government: 26%
  • Counties: 23%

What Did the Audit Find Regarding Costs?

I saw four major conclusions in the audit regarding the costs public agencies incur when responding to PRRs:

  1. Agencies are spending a lot of money on responding to PRRs and are recovering only a slight fraction of the money spent. There’s no question that agencies are spending a significant amount of money responding to PRRs—$60 million in the past year alone, with the state government, cities and towns, and counties shouldering 82% of that total cost. The staff time needed to locate, review, redact, and prepare the records for release is responsible for 98% of the total cost. In addition, of the $60 million dollars in total costs, agencies recovered only $350,000—less than 1% of the costs of responding to PRRs.
  2. Requesters want records in electronic, not paper, form. About half of the requests received are now fulfilled by email or online through the cloud or file transfer protocol sites. As noted by the SAO:

The medium of delivery matters because the PRA refers to charges for copies and photocopies. Many governments have interpreted this language as not permitting cost recovery for electronic records provided through email or online, and only allowing recovery for the cost of physical media devices the document is copied on to such as a CD, DVD or flash drive.

  1. The number of requests is increasing and the requests are becoming more complex. From 2011-2015, the average number of requests received increased by 36%. The vast majority of respondents (81%) reported receiving increasingly complex requests, like those asking for “any and all records” on a specified topic, with no timeframe identified. Complex requests drive up the cost for public agencies due to increased coordination needed between departments, can unduly interfere with providing other essential government functions (by pulling staff away from other duties to search for, review, and redact records), and result in longer response times to the requester.
  2. The cost of fulfilling PRRs continues to rise. From 2011-2015, the annual average costs incurred by Washington’s public agencies in fulfilling PRRs increased by 70%.

My Thoughts on the Audit’s Findings

There’s no question that public records management and disclosure has changed dramatically and become more challenging for agencies since the PRA was enacted in 1972. As noted by the SAO in their audit, “[t]oday’s governments must maintain far more material than their counterparts of two generations ago, when the PRA was being formulated.” In 1972, file cabinets filled with paper (and finite storage) was the norm; now, agencies transact business primarily with electronic records and have essentially unlimited storage. Searching for responsive records, reviewing those records, and copying them for production takes time, effort, and money—over $60 million in the most recent year alone, with public agencies shouldering more than 99% of this cost burden. There's a lot of money tied up in the current PRR system and it’s the government—and ultimately the taxpayers—who pay for it. Perhaps this is the nature of transparency, but maybe there's a better way.

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see what the Legislature does with the audit findings. I see a number of options, including: (1) amend the PRA’s language to clearly allow agencies to charge for electronic copies; and (2) adopt some of the approaches taken by other states, such as allowing agencies to charge for staff time for searching, reviewing, and producing records. My next blog post will explore some of these options, as well as practices that agencies can adopt right now to make records management and production more streamlined.

Have a question or comment about this information? Want to see a blog post related to a different aspect of the PRA or on another topic? Let me know below or contact me directly at fcollins@mrsc.org.

About Flannary Collins

Flannary's legal background is in local government law. She joined MRSC in 2013 after serving 10 years as assistant city attorney at the City of Shoreline, where she advised all city departments. At MRSC, Flannary provides advice to municipalities on a wide range of legal issues, including public records, public works, and land use.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Flannary Collins

Comments

"THX Cynthia- I saw a summary of the report you cited which was much more inclusive & addressed my concerns. Attorney Joe Bennett did a session on rethinking PRA responses that was very well received @last week's WASWD conference. Missed John Carpita's presence in Spokane! "Hello" to Webmaster Don! Regards, Jerry"

Jerry B. Thornton, Sr. on Sep 24, 2016 9:23 PM

"For small cities and counties with modest budgets, a large PRR can be devastating. How about an "insurance" approach? A jurisdiction pays a premium that goes into a fund, and pays a base cost for PRR's out of pocket (like the deductible on an insurance policy). If it gets an exceptionally costly request the additional amount would be paid out of the fund. The deductible might be based on a percentage of the total annual budget, so large jurisdictions would have a higher threshold before the coverage kicks in. We insure against other catastrophic costs, why not this?"

Cynthia Richardson on Sep 22, 2016 7:00 PM

"Jerry: Thank you for your comment. Although not highlighted in my blog post, the audit did include special purpose districts. The SAO's Performance Audit: The Effect of Public Records Requests on State and Local Governments webpage (http://www.sao.wa.gov/state/Pages/PA_RecordsStudy.aspx) has a helpful table showing which categories of agencies were contacted, as well as their response rate. 1,311 special districts were invited to participate in the survey, with 33% responding. The SAO's interactive webpage also shows quite a bit more detail about PRA requests and responses, indicating, for example, that the special districts responding to the survey received 9,246 PRRs in the most recent year."

Flannary Collins on Sep 15, 2016 4:31 PM

"In reviewing the responses by categories, I noted that Special Purpose Districts (SPD) were not listed as being included in the survey. According to MRSC (2012) data on your website there are approximately 1650-1700 SPD's in 85 categories. SPD's are as likely targets as state, county & city government entities. Was there a rationale for excluding them from the survey? THX jt"

Jerry B. Thornton, Sr. on Sep 14, 2016 8:54 PM

"This blog talks only about the costs, and not the benefits, of providing public records to the owners of that information -- that us, the public. If that $60 million is to be believed, that amounts to about .003 of spending (OMB put public spending in the state at $16 billion last year). Spending only a small fraction of one percent of our money to perform one of the essential functions of government is not a burden, it's a bargain. The amount of money that agencies spend trying to hide public records has also not been taken into account. Every time an agency lies about public records, is taken to court, and loses, it's because some public employee abused their position, tried to cover up something that they didn't want revealed, and were somehow under the absurd impression that the records were "their" (the agency's) records, and not the property of we, the people, who paid to have those records created in the first place."

Tom Thiersch on Sep 14, 2016 6:41 PM

"Recent examples like the City of Federal Way graphically demonstrate the absolute need for open public records. However $60 million is a lot for the rest of us to pay to catch one or two bad actors a year. There ought to be a way to preserve broad public access while curtailing the ability of one or two serial requestors with an agenda to paralyze - and potentially bankrupt - small agencies. Please support legislative action to update this statute."

Bruce MacIntyre on Sep 14, 2016 6:25 PM

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