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Data: Why Public Records Requests Are Getting Harder to Fulfill

GovQA, a company that makes software to help public agencies with records requests, has put out a report measuring the difficulty of the job over time, using data from its customers. Here's what they found.

The job of fulfilling public records requests is getting harder — but why?

GovQA, a company that sells software to the public sector to help it manage those requests, is trying to dig into that question with its new Peers in Public Records Index, a quarterly look at various data from its customers. It’s found a marked increase in overall complexity since 2018, exacerbated by the pandemic.

The details of the PiPRIndex help shed some light on why that might be. The index is broken down into eight components dealing with everything from the number of public records requests coming in to the types of files being requested.

Almost every piece of the index has increased since the beginning of 2018, but the one that really stands out is the average amount of time each agency spends on public records requests — a category that saw a dramatic rise in the third quarter of 2020 from 438 hours to 1,658 hours.

Melanie Pusateri, content marketing manager for GovQA, said the onset of the pandemic created a lot of new questions for government to answer.

“You saw a huge spike with media and the public wanting to know how their agencies were handling the pandemic, what was being done about this and that — what are they paying for masks, how are they handling inmates? All kinds of new questions that had never been asked really before,” she said.

There might be many reasons why the amount of time spent on records requests rose so dramatically. For example, requests for video files such as body and dashcam footage from police departments can take lots of time to review and redact before releasing. Files that go through optical character recognition — which makes the text in image files such as PDFs searchable — also add complexity.

“Bodycam and dashcam video … is very complex. It takes time to review that and to get signed off and redact and release — it takes time just to upload and download the thing, let alone watch it,” Pusateri said.

Video requests have more than doubled since the start of 2018, while OCR files have increased about 90 percent.

Closely related is the size of the files agencies are handing over. Since 2018, the average agency has gone from 8 gigabytes of records requests to 35 gigabytes — a more than fourfold increase.

Remarkably, the size of files agencies are releasing is growing much faster than the number of requests, which only increased about 44 percent in the past three years. That suggests that the average public records request has gotten a lot bigger over time.

The only piece of the index that has decreased over time has been the number of staff members who work on an average request — it’s fallen from 2.07 at the beginning of 2018 to 1.84 at the beginning of 2021.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.