Managing Excessive Public Records Requests

Managing Excessive Requests While Preserving Public Records Access

The Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access (CSPRA) is a non‐profit organization dedicated to promoting the principle of open public records access to ensure individuals, the press, advocates, and businesses the continued freedom to collect and use the information made available in the public record for personal, commercial, and societal benefit. It is CSPRA’s belief that the records of how our society governs itself at all levels and manner of government ought to be open and accessible to all.

Policymakers and records managers in all levels and branches of government endeavor to fulfill public records requests with fidelity to the purpose and requirements of the law.  Occasionally, some of these requests are seen as excessive and a solution is sought for dealing with such requests.  CSPRA has developed the principles and framework below to assist those developing solutions to this problem.

Always a Need for Balance

  • Maintaining and defending an open and accessible government is not easy and not without challenges
  • The need to be fair and open should be not presumed to be a lesser value than low costs or efficiency
  • The best approach is to be fair, open, and low cost—and technology often makes that possible
  • When challenges remain and achieving all three objectives at once is not possible, the needs and interest of both cost management and fair and open government need to be understood and accounted for in making decisions
  • The weight and value placed on fairness and openness should be measured in both its great value to a free and open society and the economic benefits of open public records access
  • When the values at stake and the effects of decisions are properly weighted, a proper balance can be struck

 

What to Avoid

  • Do not judge records requestors by who they are or where they are from rather than by the effect of their request
  • Do not use the “excessive” label as a pretext or excuse to:
    • Avoid maintaining a modern records system
    • Hide records and thereby avoid responsibility for government misdeeds or mismanagement
    • Deny requests for trivial or personal reasons
    • Collect more taxes and fees from users or categories of users
    • Cut the budgets for records management

How to Judge a Request to Be “Excessive”

  • A request may be considered excessive if it:
    • Is not foreseeable and therefore beyond record managers’ ability to plan ahead to meet such requests in a routine manual or automated manner
    • Requires substantial manual processing because the technology to automate does not exist or is not cost effective
    • Requires interpretation of the data and judgment as to its meaning

Framework for Solutions

  • Determine what requests are actually causing a problem beyond the records system’s operational parameters
  • Determine the key factors causing the requests to be problematic
  • To the extent possible, improve the records system to accommodate such requests
  • For those remaining, narrowly tailor an exception
  • Use quantitative analysis of fulfilling the request, not qualitative analysis of the requestor and their motives in crafting the exception
    • Example: Section 506(a) of Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law (“An agency may deny a requester access to a record if the requester has made repeated requests for that same record and the repeated requests have placed an unreasonable burden on the agency.”)
  • Use a multi-factor formula with allowance for judgment in favor of granting the request, a chance to reframe the request so it can be granted, and a chance for appeal if denied
  • Non-judicial appeal of findings of excessiveness should be to a disinterested third party
  • The same entity for appeals should be available for advisory opinions to help guide records managers’ decisions

For additional information, questions, or feedback on this document or any public records issues, please contact us or visit our web site as http://www.cspra.org.

Richard J. H. Varn

Executive Director

Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access

620 42nd St

Des Moines, IA 50312-2732

Email: rjmvarn@msn.com

Cell :  (515) 229-8984

http://www.cspra.org

A non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the principle of open public records access to ensure individuals, the press, advocates, and businesses the continued freedom to collect and use the information made available in the public record for personal, commercial, and societal benefit.