Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Proposal

November 2010
A request for voluntary and codified changes to the way Portland City offices treat records requests from Neighborhood Associations and other community-based groups.

We Request:
1) Commissioners voluntarily direct bureaus to allocate a portion of their 2010-11 budgets to providing free-of-charge access for document requests supported by Portland’s Neighborhood Associations or other community-based, non-profit organizations.

2) Commissioners voluntarily direct all City offices and bureaus to accept a default working principle of “digitize and post publicly” for work products moving forward. Direct offices to innovate fast and affordable information sharing methods that reduce paper consumption, with the goal of making it simple for the public to stay informed without formal information requests. Direct offices to accept and respond to regular citizen input (by phone, email, or online form) about the specific information the public deems valuable and would like to find shared online by default.

3) Craft and execute an adjustment to the City’s Public Access to Records policy (BCP-ADM-8.03) to codify no-charge access to information requests supported by Portland’s Neighborhood Associations or other community-based organizations.

Discussion of Financial Impact
The funds required to fulfill public records requests from community-based organizations and Neighborhood Associations should represent a relatively small portion of a bureau’s “public involvement” budget. As an example, consider the Portland Water Bureau public records requests for a one year period in comparison to its public involvement budget for a one year period. Recently, the Portland Water Bureau conducted a “snapshot” study of ALL public records requests (not just those from community groups, but all requests) at their bureau for fiscal year 2008-2009. Including requests for correspondence, email communication, publications, maps, billings, customer account water consumption data, and financial documents the bureau amassed $37,000 in that one year period (described as “staff time” and “resources”). This bureau’s public involvement budget was listed as $614,759 for the one year period of FY 2009-10. All requests to this bureau represent just 6% of their “public involvement” budget, and less than 1/16th of 1% of their total budget for the year (total PWB budget for FY 2009-10 was over $148 million).

Increasing digital access will reduce the impact of formal records requests, both by reducing the number filed and by reducing the time required to fill each request. Requiring bureaus to offer free access to certain citizen groups, minimally impacts bureau budgets and will likely inspire City offices to quickly innovate less resource consuming ways to publish public information.

Why this proposal benefits Portlanders
Information is essential for an involved and engaged public. Portlanders value civic engagement, and information fosters the vibrant civic life that characterizes our city. Engaged citizens provide invaluable support to city government initiatives. In 2009 alone, Solarize Portland, the SE Tool Library, and massive neighborhood clean-up events exemplified how engaged citizens can generate incredible support for government initiatives, amplifying the effectiveness of those initiatives at little or no-cost to government. An informed citizenry is a smart investment in a volunteer-labor force that returns tangible dividends.

But who decides what information interests the public? Publishing decisions are usually made by the bureaucracies generating the information. It’s important to remember that in delegating authority, the citizens of Portland do not give their public servants the right to decide what is and what isn’t good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. Citizens fund the staff, the computer and the overhead that go into creating our public records. At the heart of this proposal is the belief that, when practicable, citizens should be given free-of-charge access to the final product of work they’ve already funded.

The supporters of this proposal believe the fee structure currently employed in City Policy is restricting the citizenry’s access to information. A 2007 study of government transparency in the 50 states gave Oregon an “F.” As stated in Binding City Policy 8.03, “the City of Portland prides itself in citizen access to City records, which is a fundamental component of democracy.” As such, we request that the City continues to evolve the policy in reaction to citizen input.

This year, Oregon’s Attorney General surveyed sunshine laws around the country, revealing a number of practices that seem to foster information access better than our local policies. For example, at least 11 states limit document request fees by excluding the cost of staff time, such that inspecting records is generally free (this is true in cities like Seattle and Austin). Contrast this with Portland’s policy, which allowed a neighborhood volunteer to be charged $57 for the time it took her to read a document while sitting in a bureau office. Many states that permit the inclusion of staff time do so only after a certain threshold -- in Austin, Texas, for example, a requestor does not pay for labor on requests requiring less than 50 copies. Several states set a flat hourly rate for all staff/labor charges, usually between $10 and $15 dollars. Contrast that with Portland’s staff time charges which are laboriously calculated for each City employee involved in a request, resulting in staff charges that run the gamut from $20 to almost $200 an hour (for upper level employees).

Meeting the Public Interest Test
According to the Oregon Attorney General’s Manual on Public Records, a “matter or action is commonly understood to be 'in the public interest' when it affects the community or society as a whole, in contrast to a concern or interest of a private individual or entity." In applying the public interest test, custodians are directed to decide if the information requested is a personal matter of interest solely to the party requesting it, or if the subject involves public business of interest to the broader community.

Community-based, non-profit organizations and Neighborhood Associations can effectively telegraph true citizen-interest from the community to the government. Community-based organizations are often formed around a very current issue of great community concern. Neighborhood Associations are uniquely integral to the proper functioning of this city. As active participants in land development processes, including long-range city planning and code enforcement, they keep the land’s use grounded in the will of the citizenry. Volunteers from NA’s and other community organizations carry community issues down to city hall and meet face to face with Commissioners and decision makers, keeping them current and informed with a wide variety of perspectives. Made-up of citizens themselves, these organizations can act as a first-level filter on defining “in the public interest” from the community’s perspective.

Providing access to the information communities deem valuable without the limiting burden of onerous fees is a reasonable investment of public funds. Community-based, non-profit organizations and Neighborhood Associations can provide a means by which information can flow from government to citizens, according to the values shared by both government and citizen (those shared values being free access to public information without over burdening either party with unreasonable associated costs). When a request is backed by a community organization or a Neighborhood Association, and the information is intended to be shared with the community (i.e. the members of that community-based organization), that information should be regarded as meeting the standard of “in the public interest”.

Clearly, opportunity exists for Portland to improve its public records policy. The supporters of this proposal seek to start with just one change, that declares the city’s commitment to transparency and an engaged citizenry by providing free-of-charge access to public records when the request represents a plurality of public will. We seek to clarify for City document-custodians that requests supported by Neighborhood Associations and other community-based organizations inherently meet the Public Interest Test, and therefore will be offered codified relief from public records access fees. We believe this specific policy change will simplify request fulfillment for City employees, it will help keep Portland’s government transparent, and it will inspire the City to innovate information access so as to reduce waste and the need for formal requests.


Won’t it be expensive and time consuming for city employees to digitize their work?
Just about everything produced in today’s workplace is done so on a computer, so the data originates in a digital form. City employees can simply save or print to “PDF” any document the public requests.

Digitizing older work products is an entirely separate issue requiring more resources. However, we have to jump in at some point and make it the standard to print to PDF; the longer we wait the more catch-up we have to do. These issues, digitizing as you work vs. catching-up digital access for older documents should not be confused, as one is sometimes used as an excuse to avoid launching the other.

Doesn’t this amount to special treatment for one group?
The public interest test inherently grants government the opportunity to treat entities differently. The factors to be weighed in this test include not just an analysis of the material requested, but an analysis of the requestor. For instance, whether they have the ability to disseminate the information (news organizations are allowed to be treated differently under this analysis).

The law provides equal access for all and current policy meets the law. Dropping the fee for one party doesn’t in any way further restrict another party’s access. Every citizen in Portland has access to a Neighborhood Association from which he/she can seek support for a document request. This allowance will benefit the broader community, not just one special interest.
*1 - “Results and Criteria of BGA/NFOIC survey,” available at http://www.nfoic.org/uploads/results1.pdf
*2 - Attorney General’s Government Transparency Report, October 2010