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Exclusive: New Index Tracks Data on Public Records Requests

GovQA, which sells software to help the public sector handle public records requests, is putting out a quarterly index to benchmark how difficult the job is. By their measure, complexity has more than doubled since 2018.

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If one works with public records, one might have felt a creeping sensation in the past several years that the job is slowly getting harder.

And in fact it has — by one measure, it’s gotten 150 percent harder since 2018.

That number comes from a new report, to be updated four times a year, from gov tech company GovQA. The company offers software to help government agencies handle public records requests, and it’s now digging into the work its customers are doing to benchmark the complexity and volume of those requests into numbers that represent nationwide trends.

The idea, in broad strokes, is to create a common understanding of what it takes to fulfill public records requests so that everybody — government agencies, legislators who vote on funding, the public, the media and so on — can see what’s changing. The data is based on activity among 239 organizations, of which 58 are at the state level, 44 are in county government and 128 are within municipalities.

“They've seen and felt that their job is getting harder, and we wanted to give them some proof, some quantitative data, to back that up and help them get the financing they need for new technology, to help the media and the public understand how tough their job is — because it is a tough job,” said Melanie Pusateri, a marketing content manager at GovQA.

To arrive at its “Complexity Index,” GovQA looks at a variety of metrics such as the number of records being requested, file sizes, file types and time spent per request. As of the first quarter of 2021, the Complexity Index was at 9.52.

That’s a 150 percent increase since the first quarter of 2018, which is as far back as the index goes.

There are many reasons for the increase. A big one is a broad movement among legislators to make more records public. If a person asks for “any and all” records related to a certain person or incident — common verbiage for a request — it might entail a public servant going to several different agencies with different records systems and digging for the topic at hand.

“A public records request today almost always involves somewhere between two and 10 departments to fulfill,” said Jennifer Snyder, GovQA’s chief evangelist. “That's a step. I mean, that's a lot of people who don't work for you. So I've got to go out to all these other departments, I've got to say, ‘Hey, I need your help, and by the way, I need it fast.’”

But perhaps even more important is that new technology creeping into the public sector has begun to churn out more and more public records every day. And they tend to be big.

Take body-worn cameras, for example. They’ve become common in police departments across the country, and the files they create are not only massive, but also often need to be manually scrubbed of identifying information before they can be released to the public.

“Bodycam and dashcam video … is very complex,” Snyder said. “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.”

It doesn’t stop there, either. Smart city technology involves all kinds of hardware capable of generating more and more information over time.

“Now you're adding bodycams, now you're adding audio, dashcams, stationary cams, you've got smart cities — we have cameras everywhere,” she said. “All of that layers on another layer of complexity.”

The index suggests the pandemic has only ramped up the difficulty. It dipped slightly in the first quarter of 2021, when many offices were completely shut down, but in the second quarter it jumped more than a full point.

“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?” Pusateri said. “All kinds of new questions that had never been asked really before.”

The Complexity Index is the first of four indices GovQA intends to release. Next up, most likely, is an economic index that will look at information such as the fees charged to requesters and the use of third-party vendors to outsource work. After that will be an index focused on accessibility and another to measure compliance.
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.