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San Diego Pushes for Further Transparency with New Open Records Portal

The city rolled out “NextRequest,” an online portal for residents to request city government documents.

by Lauryn Schroeder, The San Diego Union-Tribune / January 4, 2017
Image via City of San Diego

(TNS) -- The city of San Diego used to have a performance measure for its handling of public records requests.

The Human Resources Department, which processes such inquiries, listed “percent of public records act requests completed within mandated timeline” as a key performance indicator in city budgets.

In 2013, about 75 percent were completed in the required 10 days. The measure increased to 84 percent in 2014 and 85 percent in 2015.

The figure has not been updated more recently. Measurement of progress on this metric halted earlier this year, when the city rolled out “NextRequest,” an online portal for residents to request city government documents. The new online tool was touted as part of a transparency push.

The online records portal is powered by a San Francisco-based vendor of the same name, at a cost to the city of $22,400 per year.

The software allows city officials to track progress toward fulfilling requests by checking an administrative screen, which they do. It also allows for more in-depth monthly reports, which city officials are not using.

Officials said they are not using such reports yet to monitor or track progress toward any performance metrics, although they plan to in the future.

Because records of the requests are now in a database controlled by a vendor, public access to the requests themselves has declined.

U-T Watchdog asked early this year for a log of records requests as part of a region-wide effort to assess open government practices. The city was able to provide a detailed database, which included the requester’s name, date received, and details of what was requested.

After the launch of NextRequest, city officials said they had no possession of any such documents.

“To be clear, the PRA request was not denied,” said Katie Keach, director of San Diego’s communication’s department. “There were no responsive documents.”

According to Tamara Manik-Perlman, the co-founder and chief executive officer of NextRequest, city staff are able to export data, tracking progress on records requests with the click of a button.

An administrative view of NextRequest has a dashboard of basic performance metrics, including the total number of requests that are new, the number that are closed, and the average amount of days to close, Manik-Perlman said. The vendor’s main website says the portal allows management to make data-driven decisions through analytics and reporting tools.

Keach said the city relies only on the dashboard to monitor progress. These performance metrics are not publicly available either.

The city does not export any data or generate reports to perform a more in-depth analysis of its compliance and use of resources either, she said.

Business performance experts say such reports can help organizations reach efficiency goals.

“The most important thing that a business can do to improve efficiency is to have a well thought-out business plan,” said Larry Miller, president of San Diego-based Business Performance Consultants. “And then they need to find out how to track their compliance under that business plan.”

Keach said the city stopped monitoring its progress toward meeting the 10-day response time, which is required by state law, since more accurate reports would soon be generated through NextRequest.

The reports are expected to be generated early next year, she said, but will not be released to the public because the city plans to first confirm the reports are accurate.

“We have not ruled out the possibility that at some point the reports will be a public record,” Keach said. “However, our first goal is to ensure that the reporting tool provided by the vendor conveys accurate data.”

Responding to requests through the online portal represents a massive coordination of city resources.

According to a database compiled by U-T Watchdog using information from about 2,1000 requests posted publicly on NextRequest, at least 82 city employees from 45 departments help fulfill requests through the portal. They take an average of 14.5 days.

Staff within the Human Resources Department monitors submissions and responses, and reviews all released records.

Sacramento County launched its NextRequest portal in January of this year, according to county governmental relations and legislative analyst Elisia Debord.

“Right now I use it for big-picture monitoring,” she said. “I’m using the information to manage [employees] at the department level, stay in compliance and address issues to avoid late responses.”

For example, Debord said a team of employees help send reminders to department coordinators when a request is almost due, or has been pending for too long.

The group is also notified when a request is marked “overdue,” which means a department coordinator did not fulfill or respond to the request within 10 days.

Debord said that, as in San Diego, staff has yet to export request data and use it for a more in-depth analysis. She hopes to do so in January, when the portal has one year’s worth of data and staff reconvenes for public records training.

©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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