Requestors can set up a customer account and then track requests through city website
The City has taken a major leap into what may be a far better way of responding to public information requests.
That’s great news for open government advocates, who take seriously the rights made clear in the opening words of the Texas Public Information Act:
“Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of represesentative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of govenrment and the official acts of public officials and employees.”
Responding to public information requests is a gargantuan task for the City. The Austin Police Department alone fielded more than 25,000 requests in each of the last two fiscal years, according to information supplied by the city. Requests for all other departments averaged about 7,500 for each of the last two calendar years and more than 4,400 were received though June 1 of this year alone.
Those of us who are veterans of the struggle to get information from government agencies must for now be skeptical. Because this isn’t the first time the City has jumped into a major software contract in search of a solution for keeping up with a relentless torrent of public information requests, each and every one of which must be responded to within strict deadlines imposed by the Act.
Given the huge public appetite for responsive information, as revealed by the number of requests, I have in the last few days experimented with the new system. I find that it holds great promise but has some kinks to work out.
Nevertheless, the City was comfortable enough to unveil it for public use as-is.
System tested internally
“The City of Austin tested with the vendor before launch,” Andy Tate, a senior public information specialist with the City, said in an emailed response to questions posed by The Austin Bulldog. “This included having staff submit requests as general users to test the customer experience.”
That testing was no doubt well intended but staff evaluations would probably not fully represent the experience of anyone who frequently submits public information requests. The Austin Bulldog has filed nearly 500 requests since launching in April 2010. The vast majority of those were filed with the City of Austin.
Given the results of my experimentation, this article is also a software review, a first look at the new system that was quietly unveiled in an after-hours press release sent out at 6pm Monday, June 11, 2018.
Spoiler alert: the City probably should’ve launched this as a beta version, something that a limited number of users—not city employees—could have tested before general release. It’s too late for that now.
Before he had an opportunity to try out the new system, in reacting to the press release Austin attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, a longtime advocate for open records and open government, praised its ability “to check on the status of your request, assuming they keep the web account information up to date.”
And he has high hopes for a new feature not yet implemented.
“They say, ‘later this year’ they will allow online payment for copies, solving a longstanding problem (of) having to deliver a manual check if you are in a hurry for the records,” Aleshire said.
(Disclosure: In years past Aleshire represented The Austin Bulldog in winning two lawsuits against the City of Austin for its failure to comply with the Act.)
For context let’s look back at recent history.
Reforms triggered by investigation
The City’s first major attempt at overhauling the City’s public information system happened soon after completion of Travis County Attorney David Escamilla’s investigation of the City Council’s violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act and related violations of the Texas Public Information Act.
Escamilla initiated his investigation the same day The Austin Bulldog published an investigative report January 25, 2011. The report exposed an institutionalized practice of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by holding round-robin, “walking quorum” meetings among the mayor and council members before most council meetings.
In legal terms that’s a misdemeanor crime described as a “conspiracy to circumvent” the law, as set forth in Section 551.143 and “punishable by a fine of not less than $100 or more than $500; confinement in the county jail by not less than one month or more than six months; or both the fine and confinement.”
As reported by The Austin Bulldog October 24, 2012, the county attorney’s investigation was concluded after 20 months. Instead of charging and prosecuting these elected officials, the matter was settled by requiring Mayor Lee Leffingwell and all council members (except Kathie Tovo, who was not on the council when our story broke) to sign deferred prosecution agreements.
More immediate reforms started six weeks after The Austin Bulldog’s story broke. These included major changes in how council members and city employees used, retained, and stored electronic communications to ensure it would be made available for public information upon request.
Scores of subsequent stories published by The Austin Bulldog documented a variety of other shortcomings. Stories revealed the elected officials in a single year had held hundreds of private one-on-one and two-on-one meetings with each other. Other stories exposed the lack of training among the elected officials’ staff members in how to properly maintain public records. One story showed how a council member’s chief aide wrote an email to other aides to school them in how to avoid detection of the conversations among council members via an internal messaging system.
The Austin Bulldog’s first lawsuit, filed March 1, 2013, forced the elected officials to provide copies of emails about city business they had exchanged on private email accounts, a requirement later made part of state law. Five years later that same lawsuit won an a Third Court of Appeals decision. The court ruled that private email addresses of public officials using private email for government business can no longer be redacted when turning over copies in response to public information requests.
In September 2013, the City completed transferring responsibility for receiving and processing public information requests. That function was moved from the Public Information Office to the Law Department, which had anticipated taking on these chores by establishing a new position and hiring a public information manager in July 2013.
In addition, on December 3, 2013, the City signed a software contract with Lockheed Martin Desktop Solutions Inc. for a hosted public information request system called the IQ PIR System. The initial contract was for $305,924. Several amendments brought the total to $363,842. (The contract is linked at the bottom of this article.)
Although Lockheed Martin provided training for City employees in how to use the system to respond to public information requests, ultimately the system was never fully implemented. The IR PIR System was eventually abandoned in favor of returning to what the City called the “Legacy System” that had been in use before.
Once more into the breach
The vendor for the latest new system is Insight Public Sector Inc., under a contract arranged through U.S. Communities, a government purchasing alliance, and signed by the City of Austin August 18, 2017. (Contract linked below.)
Insight Public Services is providing the GovQA software solution under a sole-source contract.
The City Council voted 11-0 to authorize negotiation and execution of the contract with Insight Public Sector (agenda item 38) August 17, 2017, for a term of 12 months with options for four more 12-month periods in a total amount not to exceed $855,774. The initial authorization was $152,400. Austin Finance Online records indicate that $147,999 has been spent so far.
The cost of the contract included training for employees in the City’s CTM Department, who in turn were to train other city staff involved in the public information system.
The GovQA system was recommended by current municipal users including the cities of Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, according to information supplied to council members before authorizing the contract.
Adding further to confidence in this vendor is that Insight Public Sector Inc. already provides a wide range of other city services and has been paid $43.8 million to date, according to Austin Finance Online records.
New complexity and more information
The new system will seem complicated for anyone accustomed to the simplistic procedures in effect before the new process that kicked in unannounced at 5pm last Friday, June 8.
If you want to forgo the joy of reading about the ins and outs of the new system contained in the rest of this story, you can just file your public information requests and figure it out as you go.
Start by clicking here.
You will be asked to register by providing an email address and creating a password. Registration also mandates that you enter your first name and select a “Requestor Type,” for which there are seven options: attorney/law firm, city employee, student, general public media/press, private enterprise/corporation, or other.
If you want to jump right in, you might also want to click here to check out the City’s quick-start guide, “Accessing the Public Records Center.”
Why give a requestor type?
Okay, so you’re decided to give the new system a go. Why be concerned?
For one, Aleshire was critical of the demand to declare what kind of requestor you may be.
“Why are they collecting that information when the occupation of the requestor is irrelevant to the equal treatment they must give all requests regardless of the occupation of the requestor? See Texas Public Information Act Section 552.223, Uniform treatment of requests for information:
“The officer for public information or the officer’s agent shall treat all requests for information uniformly without regard to the position or occupation of the requestor, the person on whose behalf the request is made, or the status of the individual as a member of the media.”
Aleshire said, “They make me suspicious needing to know whether the requestor is an attorney. Will they try to automatically claim litigation exception or make it harder for attorneys to get information? Or will they benefit media requests over other citizen requests?
“Either they will misuse the occupation information they collect, or they did not need to collect that information in the first place,” he said.
Tate responded to that concern: “All requestors will be treated equally. The ‘types’…allow the City and members of the public to understand the breakdown of types of requestors. Anyone who doesn’t want to include their ‘type’ may simply select ‘other.’ ”
Tate offers assurances that requests from attorneys will not be subjected to claims of litigation exceptions, as those decisions “are made independently of a requestor’s identity.” Nor will requests from the media be processed differently.
Website offers many new features
Reminder: you must create an account and be logged in before accessing any of these features.
Public Records Center—On this page you may click on a link to Submit a Request and you’ll have the option to file in one of four categories.
You can select which departments or officials you believe possess the information you seek, describe the records you’re requesting, and enter the beginning and ending dates for the period of time covered by your request.
In addition, you must click on a box to acknowledge and agree to the terms, which state:
“In making this request I understand that the information will be released only in accordance with the Public Information Act and the City of Austin reserves the right to seek an opinion from the Texas Attorney General with regard to the release of said information. If an Attorney General’s opinion is sought by the City of Austin you will be notified in writing.”
You can attach document files to the public information request if you think it might assist the City’s response.
Finally you must type in the correct CAPTCHA Code before clicking to submit the request.
My Request Center— If you submitted a public information request through the Public Records Center, most documents will be released to you in My Request Center unless you specified otherwise when submitting your request. But some records must be mailed or picked up in person.
Requests filed under the old system, meaning last week or earlier, and currently pending will not be displayed.
In bold red type, the My Request Center page declares, “Released documents are available for a period of 30 days after your request has closed and may be downloaded three times during that time.”
On the My Request Center page you have options to:
View My Requests—to see pages that contain your requests.
However, be prepared to see the peerless prose in your written request, that probably contained such niceties as paragraphs and hyperlinks, mashed into one big blob of wall-to-wall text. Click on the “Details” link at the bottom of the blob to see the text in a different blob, along with additional information.
However, in one of my own requests, which has been in progress since I filed it May 9, 2018, and in which I’ve asked for information held by the Austin Public Library, the View My Requests page includes a message I sent today. Its status is erroneously shown as “Not an Open Records Request.”
Clearly this is wrong, since the text discusses which of the offered dates I can go and inspect the records in question. So it is every respect an active records request.
View My Invoices—to see information related to cost estimates the City may have provided for your requests. “This will help with internal reporting and general bookkeeping,” Tate said in an email.
Edit Customer Account Information—to change any information that you entered when you created your customer account.
Public Records Archive—On this page you may search for public information requests others have filed with the City. Given that content will be added going forward, there’s not much to look at now.
Tate described how content would be added: “All requests (i.e., questions) will be posted on the Archive approximately once a month on a trial basis. This is designed to increase transparency and make it easier for members of the public and reporters to access public information. Responsive information (i.e., results) will not be published on the Archive.”
It isn’t clear how seeing what requestors have asked for will “increase transparency” for anyone but the City itself. Even the tentativeness of adding content “approximately once a month” suggests this may be a solution in search of a problem.
Trending Topics—Tate describes this feature as a “proactive tool to provide current information that has been requested or is likely to be requested in the near future.”
Right now the only information on the Trending Topics page is headlined “CodeNEXT Updates.” There is a brief description of CodeNEXT and a link where you can “follow this page to receive updates when new information is published.” Click that link and you’ll go to a page where you can enter an email address and/or cell phone number and cell service provider to receive text-message updates when a Trending Topic is added or changed.
Based on my testing it appears you will receive a lot of updates, both text messages and emails. (I received 16 of each over a period of 19 hours.)
The text messages, however, are pretty lame and provide no link to click. Tate said that oversight has been reported to the vendor for repair.
The email updates do have a link but instead of going to the Trending Topics page, clicking it lands you on the Public Records Center page where you must then click on Trending Topics in the menu.
In neither text message nor email updates do you get any clues about what has been updated You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.
Finally, after many clicks, I found that Hate Crimes—“crimes reported to APD considered to be hate crimes”—had been added to Trending Topics.
By way of contrast, when any news organization sends out an alert for a breaking story you can rest assured it will include a link that takes you directly to the story. Why should these updates be handled any differently?
FAQs—Initially there are 36 frequently asked questions posted here along with answers that collectively provide a wide range of information. For those not experienced in submitting public information requests, or what to expect after doing so, this area might be worth exploring.
Click on any question to get a brief answer. You can rate the answer from one-to-five stars. A link is provided that you can click and send feedback about the question, but you will not get a reply.
There’s also a “Subscribe” link that allows you to receive an email if the answer to a question changes, as well as an “Un-Subscribe” link to stop receiving messages if the answer changes.
Like to skip all this, go old school?
Maybe after all this you’d just prefer to avoid dealing with the City’s new software system altogether. Or wait till some of its kinks are worked out.
There is a way: the City will continue to accept and process public information requests via email to:
Austin Police Department— [email protected]
All other city departments— [email protected]
“But we are encouraging members of the public to use the new portal,” Tate said, “because they will be able to track the progress of all their PIRs online and all will be accessible in one place. No more digging through emails (or having to create their own numbering system) to keep track.”
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Contract with Lockheed Martin Desktop Solutions Inc. for a Hosted Public Information Request System, December 3, 2013 (81 pages)
Related Bulldog coverage: This story is part of our ongoing coverage of the City of Austin’s problems and progress concerning access to public information:
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