In some important ways, governments don’t — and shouldn’t — operate like businesses that cut service when they cut costs. One big area is transparency and public records disclosures.
Cutting costs for public disclosure work should never cut into government agencies’ disclosure of documents. Disclosure is the superhighway to accountability.
A recent survey by the state Auditor’s Office found it costs more than $60 million a year to handle records requests in Washington at the state and local levels. The findings are sure to generate efforts to cut those costs, which have been going up over time.
We hope policy makers see the costs as a necessary cost of doing business in a free society, as well as an incentive to find more efficient, cheaper ways to disclose public documents more robustly.
The auditor’s data were requested by the Legislature and compiled from voluntary reports from 541 of the state’s 923 local and state government jurisdictions or agencies. It also relied on focus groups and other research.
Open-records advocates and government groups are already debating solutions via a stakeholders group led by Democratic Rep. Joan McBride of Kirkland and Republican Rep. Terry Nealey of Dayton.
Stakeholder Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, has suggested that agencies strategically release data and records that are sure to be of public interest. In Kirkland, he successfully pushed the city to post on its website the records it divulges in response to records requests.
Nixon thinks model ordinances could help other smaller jurisdictions cut costs as they move to post more data online. Other model ordinances could also make it cheaper and easier for local jurisdictions to legally pace their responses to massive requests for records, avoid lawsuits and avoid jeopardizing their other basic functions.
In a sign of compromise, transparency advocates are looking at the possibility of letting governments charge a very small fee for electronic records requests. Nixon said this could create an incentive for a requester to scale down overly broad requests. Fees are a slippery slope, but better than letting agencies regularly charge for staff time.
Other concepts with merit are having different jurisdictions pool resources — whether school or fire districts in a region or county — for disclosure of electronic records. Mediation or an ombudsman who could offer limited advice to requestors for a small fee is another idea; another is having administrative hearings judges sort out records disputes.
Better disclosure needs to be part of any solution.