PRA Performance Audit: 5 Tips for Improving the PRA Experience
December 9, 2016
Category: Public Records Act
This blog post is the last 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 Governments. Click the following for Part 1 or for Part 2.
The SAO’s performance audit on the PRA highlighted ways to improve records management and the PRA response experience for both agencies and requestors. This blog post will focus on those tips, as well as adding some anecdotes and insights I have gleaned over the past 14 years from working with the PRA.
1. Communicate with Requestors Early and Often
Communication really is key for a successful PRA experience, both for the agency and the requestor, for at least two reasons:
First, everyone wants to feel like they’ve been heard. Governments can appear faceless and impersonal to a citizen requesting records. Providing a two-way line of communication gives the requestor a human experience and makes clear that their time—and their request—is valued.
Second, properly wording a request can be difficult. How many of you readers out there have submitted your own PRA request? I recently submitted one for a personal matter and had some trouble with the wording. I didn’t want to use the dreaded “any and all” terminology, but I was concerned about wording my request too narrowly. It occurred to me that most requestors probably have the same experience; they don’t know how the agency organizes or labels their records, so they submit a broad request to ensure the agency produces the records they actually want. Taking the early opportunity to discuss the request with the requestor can help narrow the request, saving the agency search time and the requestor the frustration of sifting through unwanted records.
2. Manage Request Fulfillment
One way to alleviate the feeling of drowning in PRA requests is to respond quickly to simple requests. This could be same-day service, or posting on the agency website commonly requested records or records of public interest based on current events.
As for broad requests, an effective tool is to provide records in installments. This may result in a narrowing of the request once the requestor sees the types of records that are included in their broad request. Also, if the requestor fails to inspect the installment, the agency can consider the request abandoned after 30 days and close the request, saving the agency time and effort in locating and producing unwanted records.
Agencies may also consider investing in a public records request portal through which people can search for posted records on their own without submitting a PRA request, thereby helping unclog an agency’s PRA request backup.
3. Develop an Agencywide Strategy on Records Management
It’s crucial for a broad cross-section of staff—and not just a single PRO—to be involved with records management, including legal staff, senior management, and IT professionals.
In addition, as part of their records management strategy, agencies should also consider what tools they need to effectively respond to PRA requests, such as records management software. The SAO study mentions a variety of software options, such as GovQA, a public records request portal that can organize records and track and respond to public records request, and Adobe Acrobat Pro, which allows electronic redaction.
4. Ensure Employee Familiarity with the PRA and Records Retention Requirements
Agencies should train all employees on their responsibilities in the public records realm. For example, consider making records training a mandatory part of new hire orientation or requesting existing staff take advantage of training opportunities (such as those outlined in a recent MRSC blog post on PRA training requirements).
All employees should also know—and follow—their agency’s records retention schedule. Records are routinely kept way past their records retention period, making records management and PRA responses more difficult for the agency than it needs to be. Ideas to reduce the volume of records include:
- Saving electronic files in folders with specified retention periods.
- Deleting emails after a set period, thereby requiring employees to take affirmative steps to manage and retain their email messages for the appropriate timeframe.
- Holding periodic “file-a-thons” where records managers and employees can organize and manage their records.
5. Only Collect Necessary Information
Review your forms and processes to eliminate collection of superfluous information, such as driver’s license numbers and social security numbers, which can cause headaches down the road in terms of records production. Ask yourself: does the agency really need that information in order to (fill in the blank) (e.g., process the solicitor’s license or move forward with the building permit)?
It’s no secret that agencies struggle with records management and PRA responses. The good news, however, is that agencies can implement systems and tools to make records management and records production more manageable.
Does your agency utilize other methods to help with records issues? I would love to hear about them in the comments below, or through email at email@example.com.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.