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Searching and Producing Public Records

This page provides guidance on how to search for and produce public records to help local governments in Washington State stay in compliance with the Public Records Act (PRA) and current case law precedent.

It is part of MRSC's series on the Public Records Act.

Conducting an Adequate Search for Public Records

The PRA requires that agencies perform an adequate search to locate records responsive to a public records request.

The PRA itself doesn’t provide detailed provisions on how to conduct an adequate search. Instead, such requirements can be found in court decisions interpreting the PRA, including Neighborhood Alliance v. Spokane County (2011) and Block v. City of Gold Bar (2015). Those cases direct agencies to:

  • Conduct the search in a manner that is reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents
  • Consider all locations where responsive records are likely located
  • Follow obvious leads as they are uncovered

The printable practice tips below explain in more detail how to perform an adequate search, based on PRA case law.

Performing search practice tips image preview

PRA: How to Perform an Adequate Search

The PRA requires that agencies perform an adequate search to locate records responsive to a public records request. Use these practice tips to guide your agency's search for responsive records. Re-designed and revised with minor clarifications in March 2021.

Download in PDF

To ensure no records are destroyed pursuant to their standard destruction cycle after the request is received, inform staff and officials of the records request in a timely manner. One option is to provide staff and officials with a "PRA hold memo," suspending all ordinary destruction of records. See MRSC's sample PRA hold memo (Word document download).

In order to show the agency has adequately searched all relevant locations, consider developing search steps for specific locations to search and standard search terms when particular types of records are requested. For an example of this type of standard search outline, see MRSC’s Sample Search Steps for Requests for Record Regarding Properties.

Searching for Agency Emails

Searching email mailboxes for records responsive to a records request is a particularly challenging task given the volume of emails sent and received by staff and officials. Consider investing in software that allows certain staff members (like the PRO or clerk) to use specified search terms to search all agency email and find responsive records.

Examples of such software include Barracuda and Commvault; see our PRA & Records Management Technology Guide for additional software options. Notifying the requestor of search terms used in locating responsive records can also help show an adequate search.

If your agency does not have the budget to invest in such software or otherwise does not have the capability to conduct a search of all agency email, consider using an email voting tool, which allows the PRO to efficiently survey staff and officials on whether they have responsive emails.

Practice Tip: Microsoft Outlook has a “voting function” that can be included in an email, which allows the email recipient to vote “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” regarding whether they have responsive records. To learn how to use the Outlook voting function, refer to our Using Microsoft Outlook's Voting Function Practice Tips.

Searching for Records on Personal Devices

Agencies can be constrained in performing a centralized search if responsive records reside on an employee’s or official’s personal device or personal account, such as on a personal smart phone or personal email account.

In these types of circumstances, the agency can rely on the employee or official to perform their own search of their device or account, and attest to the search by signing an affidavit carefully detailing the extent and nature of their search. The affidavit must be “reasonably detailed” and “nonconclusory,” and should describe the accounts, devices and locations searched and the names and search terms used to locate responsive records.

See Nissen v. Pierce County (2015) and Block v. City of Gold Bar (2015) for more guidance on what constitutes, as documented by affidavits, an adequate search of personal devices and personal email accounts. 

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Last Modified: June 07, 2022