From a statement by the audits division of the Oregon Secretary of State's office, about a look into just how open the state's public records are.
While Oregon agencies follow the public records law for most public records requests, more needs to be done to address the complex, non-routine requests that agencies receive, according to an audit released today by the Secretary of State’s office.
Auditors examined nine state agencies of varying sizes and missions to determine how agencies are both responding to public records requests and retaining their public records. Their findings are outlined in the audit report released today, entitled: “State Agencies Respond Well to Routine Public Records Requests, but Struggle with Complex Requests and Emerging Technologies.”
The audit found that most public records requests agencies receive are simple and can be fulfilled within just a couple weeks, often at little or no cost. But agencies struggle to respond to the occasional complex request, leading at times to delays, high fees, and the perception that agencies are using these tactics to block the release of public information.
The audit recommends that policymakers consider creating a neutral third party, such as an ombudsman position, to serve as an intermediary between the public and state agencies on complex records requests. Third-party mediation services between agencies and requesters have been employed successfully in other states to help protect confidential information and ensure public access to state information.
“The public and the press have a right to see how their government operates to serve Oregonians,” said Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins. “This audit demonstrates that state agencies need to improve consistency and develop strategies to better respond to public records requests of all sizes. We must improve the public’s trust in Oregon government.”
Agencies are also struggling to keep up with the latest communication technologies, such as social media, text and instant messages, and the use of personal devices or personal email accounts. Very few agencies examined have policies in place to specifically dictate how these technologies should be used in the context of public records, and how to retain the data.
Some of these issues stem back to how agencies retain their public records. The audit found that agencies are keeping too many records past the required retention schedule, resulting in a significant volume of public records that are difficult for agencies to efficiently manage.
“Public employees want to be good stewards of state information,” said Secretary Atkins. “Given the rapidly changing ways we use technology to conduct state business, it is clear we have work to do to maintain transparency and accountability to Oregonians.”
The audit also found variation among agencies in the fees charged for public records requests and the timeline in responding to them. The audit has recommended that the Department of Administrative Services take the lead in establishing guidance regarding fees and rates for the cost of public records requests. Auditors further recommended agencies establish timeliness goals for responding to records requests, and hold themselves accountable to those goals.
Audit findings further touched on a number of related issues, including exemptions in the law and how agencies can benefit from technology to be more transparent and accountable.
The audit released today was in response to Senate Bill 9 from the 2015 Session, legislation requested by Governor Kate Brown. Read the full audit on the Secretary of State website or an executive summary on the Audits Division blog.