The $19,000-a-year system provides more transparency, if not always a timely response.
The city of New Orleans — whose compliance with the state Public Records Act has often been the subject of critical coverage, not to mention an ongoing lawsuit, from The Lens — last month unveiled an online platform designed to make it easier for citizens to request government documents. The platform also hosts fulfilled requests online, allowing others to access those records for free.
The Louisiana Public Records Act requires governments to provide records immediately if not in use at the time of a request, or three days if in use. The city failed to meet that deadline in about two-thirds of the requests The Lens filed in the two years leading up to its 2015 lawsuit. Some languished for months.
As of Monday afternoon, there were 121 requests submitted through the NextRequest platform. Sixty-nine were fulfilled, with an average response time of about four business days. Another 26 were still pending, with an average wait time of nine business days and a few requests as much as a month old. The remainder were denied, typically because a requester asked for records that don’t exist or for documents the city doesn’t keep.
In cases where the records might contain private information that needs to be removed, the city is required to determine how long it will take to examine and redact them and then provide a reasonable estimate, which it has routinely failed to do.
NextRequest was founded last year by a San Francisco-based company made up of former Code For America fellows. New Orleanians may remember Code for America from 2012, when another group of fellows, working with the city, created BlightStatus, an online blight tracking tool. The idea for NextRequest grew out of a records request tool, called RecordTrac, that CEO Tamara Manik-Perlman helped create while working as a fellow in Oakland, Calif.
“We wanted to generalize the project to make it useful for other cities,” Manik-Perlman said in a phone interview. So she and co-founders Reed Duecy-Gibbs and Andy Hull created NextRequest and began marketing it to local governments around the country. It’s since been adopted by a number of local governments including Albuquerque, San Diego and the Port of Seattle.
Manik-Perlman said a city Information Technology employee, Eric Ogburn, first contacted her in July 2015 to ask about NextRequest.
“I think the primary concern for them was the process was difficult for people to access records,” she said. City officials hoped the system would help the city become more compliant with sunshine laws, she said. Ogburn did not respond to a request for comment.
In December, the city purchased NextRequest for a year at a cost of about $19,000. The city did not solicit public bids for the service. That was not required because the price was below $20,000 and because NextRequest was providing a unique product, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s spokesman Hayne Rainey wrote in an email to The Lens.
“NextRequest’s ability to fill public record requests automatically and filling and tracking requests internally will bring increased efficiency, accuracy and cost savings to the City and public,” Rainey wrote.
Manik-Perlman said NextRequest mitigates some of the problems that cause delays. It does this in part by helping the city to more quickly recognize requests that are not the city’s responsibility. For instance, the system flags certain keywords that often appear in requests for records that aren’t in its possession, such as “divorce decree” — a Civil District Court record — or “birth certificate” — a state record.
The first step in the process, making a request, is not unlike the city’s old process. With the new process, as with the old one, users can submit public-records requests for city departments through an online form. The only real difference is that where the city once had different processes for Police Department records requests and requests for those housed in City Hall, the NextRequest form works for any city department.
After that, the new system is significantly different. It was difficult to see how often the city complied with the law. Now, all requests are posted online with the date each one was made. The system also shows if a request is still pending or has been closed and whether records have yet been made available.
Under the old system, requesters would typically hear from the city only twice after making a request. First, at the three-day mark, when the city would email an “initial response” letter that did little more than acknowledge the request, and then again when the records were available.
The new system allows requesters to track their requests as they make their way through city government, at least in theory. In the request-tracking portion of the page, many requests on the site now only show the same vague message — “Support Staff Added” — repeatedly. Anyone unsatisfied with that can write the city a follow-up message through the NextRequest system.
Once a record is ready to be viewed, the city alerts the requester, who can then view them in person or pay for copies. If he or she chooses the latter, the city will upload the records online for anyone to view, another new feature. That’s another potential time-saver because users can see if a document has already been shared online.
“That means that over time the agency is essentially creating a searchable archive of public documents,” Manik-Perlman wrote in a follow-up email. “This enables the public to access documents directly, reducing the number of duplicate requests and saving time for both requesters and the city.”
Manik-Perlman said the company is working on a new feature that will allow users to pay copy fees directly through the site.
By Monday morning, six documents were posted on the site, representing just three requests of the 69 the city has fulfilled in the past month. Asked why the city doesn’t simply upload all requested records automatically, Rainey said the law requires the city to charge for the service.
“Yes, per ordinance the City must charge and must receive payment before we provide the record, regardless of format (email, cd, paper, nextrequest),” he wrote.
He was referring to the City Code, which is online for free, despite the code itself saying that copies of the code cost $150.
This story was originally published by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.