Develop Improved Guidelines for Open Records Requests

State agencies should develop guidelines for handling requests for documents under the Open Records Act.


Background
Under the Texas Open Records Act, public records must be accessible. The Act defines public records as the portion of all documents, writings, letters, memoranda or other written, printed, typed, copied or develop ed materials that contain information collected, assembled or maintained by an agency in connection with the transaction of official business or as required by law. Upon receiving a request for public records, governmental bodies, including state agencies, are obligated to promptly provide the information for inspection or copying. All persons are, unless otherwise expressly prohibited by law, at all times entitled to full information regarding the affairs of government.

State agencies receive thousands o f requests for public information each week, and the types of information requested are as varied as the requesters. Consultants, attorneys, commercial users, media, governmental entities and taxpayers request information from the state.

Because providing access to public records is not the primary purpose of an agency, the process has received little direct, concentrated attention. However, the Comptroller s office, as part of its Renaissance Project , reviewed the open records/disclosure process to evaluate it and recommend changes to improve the process without creating additional bureaucracy. Other agencies could benefit from a similar review.

Competing public demands exist. On one hand, the public wants more information from government, and on the other, the public demands protection of personal privacy. Often, the public perceives state government as an impenetrable bureaucracy. State employee s and the public both misunderstand the issue of access to public records. Unfortunately, many state employees do not know what part they play in the open records/disclosure process. By improving open records management, state agencies change public perceptions, enhance awareness and provide better service.

The Open Records/Disclosure Process . The open records/disclosure process includes all aspects of responding to open records requests and information requests from governmental entities. The Act enumerates exceptions to the general provision that public records are available for review. Unfort unately, these exceptions are not always easy to apply in fact situations. Some agencies must operate in accordance with other statutes that make certain information confidential.
In addition, under the Act the agency has within ten days from the date the request is received to decide whether the requested information can be provided. If the agency is uncertain whether the information requested is confidential, a request for an open records decision must be submitted to the Attorney General within ten days. Thus, complex de cisions must often be made in a short time. As state agencies endeavor to be more efficient and responsive with fewer resources, the open records process is ripe for review.


Recommendation
The Comptroller s Renaissance Project Open Records Process Team made the following recommendations to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the open records/disclosure process, demonstrating that opportunities exist for state agencies to improve management of open records requests. Othe r state agencies should review their open records/disclosure processes to identify and implement ideas for similar improvements.

A. Every agency should develop and maintain guidelines and ongoing education programs on open records and disclosure issues.

To serve customers properly and avoid violating the law, employees who deal with the public must be aware of the definition of open records, procedures to be followed and his or her role in responding to information requests. The Comptroller s Open Records Process Team discovered during employee interviews that most employees sometimes misunderstood what constituted open records and consequently did not relate the open records process to their specific jobs. Using existing resources, agencies can train through classroom instructi on, videos, manuals, quick reference cards, development of computer expert systems and brochures for the public.

B. A uniform state exchange agreement should be developed and used for efficient, secure exchange of information between agencies.

A uniform state exchange agreement should provide simple, quick and secure procedures for exchanging information between agencies. Currently, agencies exchange information based on verbal understandings. Some agencies charge other agencies for information, while ot hers do not. A uniform agreement should include other issues such as security of confidential information.


Implications
Examining agency open records policies and procedures and establishing exchange agreements will ensure the public is treated equitably and that open information can be obtained in the easiest manner possible. In addition, agencies may be better equipped to keep confidential information secure.


Fiscal Impact
The fiscal impact from this recommendation should be insignificant. Agencies should use existing staff to examine their procedures and should have persons designated to ensure that they are in compliance with open records requirements.