Austin doesn't make it easy for community members to review public information or have a standard approach for providing such materials, a new internal audit found, potentially curbing legally required government disclosures and damaging impressions of city transparency.

The new review of Austin's management of public information requests comes soon after a separate audit of the city's online public data portal—another key resource for Austinites seeking to learn more about government operations—detailing reliability problems in that system.

The context

Under Texas law, members of the public have a right to view a wide range of government records.

Although governments can withhold some information, most standard requests must be fulfilled in a timely manner. And all requestors, from private citizens to members of the media, must be treated the same throughout the process.

Governments must also let people know if their request will cost anything or if the entity plans to appeal the attorney general to withhold any information. City staff handling the process must be trained in handling such requests as well.

“The city has made efforts to follow these principles but can do more to improve the transparency and accessibility of its public information,” Assistant City Auditor Patrick Johnson told City Council during an Aug. 23 meeting.

Violations of the state's public records laws by government employees can be misdemeanors carrying penalties ranging from fines to jail time. Public records disputes can also be resolved in civil court.

The big picture

A city auditor report released in August found Austin officials typically provide requested information within a reasonable amount of time, but extended delays are still common, especially for requests to the Austin Police Department.
Austin promptly provides requested records most of the time, but delays are still common. (Courtesy city of Austin)
Austin officials promptly provide requested records most of the time, but delays are still common. (Courtesy city of Austin)
The audit covered the city's handling of records requests from 2018-22 and found:
  • Information isn't always compiled, redacted or released in a consistent way.
  • Requestors aren't all treated equally.
  • The city doesn't offer resources explaining how members of the public can write and submit requests, and doesn't offer information in languages other than English.
  • The city doesn't take a proactive approach to making information available or sharing often-requested records.
  • City staff receive varied levels of training on how to handle information requests.
  • The city's public information request teams may not be adequately staffed.
“More proactive measures could help improve the city’s approach as well as the public’s perception about the transparency and accessibility of the city information,” Johnson said.

City officials worked through the new audit's findings during an Aug. 23 committee meeting. Now, city staff plans to take on several recommended fixes from the report in the near future.

“I know it’s a difficult topic with my constituents because they get frustrated when their [public information requests] don’t come through in a timely manner. But also, I understand you have personnel restrictions and time restrictions, and that makes it really difficult,” Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said.

The details

Auditors found Austin lacks frequently requested records or information on significant issues that could be displayed for public access. Overall, auditors said the city's system “does not appear to be helpful” for anyone seeking out public information when compared with other Texas cities using similar processes.

Additionally, a majority of users surveyed for the audit said they weren't satisfied with the city's system and had received outdated or unrelated information in response to a request.

The city's lack of a proactive public information process may contribute to a backlog of public information requests, or PIRs, and a high workload for staffers handling those requests. Auditors said posting the most often-requested records—a service staff said they're stretched too thin for right now—could cut down on the tens of thousands of PIRs filed in Austin each year.

Another notable finding was the differing amounts of information provided for similar requests, depending on how PIRs are phrased and submitted.

For a sampling of Austin's system, auditors requested the same information in three separate generic PIRs that were each written differently with varying levels of information. While all three sought identical records, all resulted in different outcomes and may not have been comprehensive.

Such results can erode confidence in the local government, auditors noted. Several PIR users surveyed said they think the city is actively working to block information and most gave Austin a failing grade on transparency.

Auditors also highlighted the difficulty they encountered in getting records specifically from the APD; a request that was last updated earlier this spring has yet to be fulfilled even after auditors clarified their search.
City auditors encountered difficulties with public information requests to the Austin Police Department. (Courtesy city of Austin)
City auditors encountered difficulties with public information requests to the Austin Police Department. (Courtesy city of Austin)

Zooming in

Auditors said Austin's staffing for PIRs may contribute to some of the inconsistencies and delays experienced by users.

Information requests are broken down between those related to the police department and those related to all other departments and city officials' offices, labeled “Cityside.” Six APD staffers handle all police requests, while six members of the city's law team handle all Cityside PIRs in coordination with dozens of individual department representatives who help compile information.

However, auditors said the APD alone received more than double the number of PIRs as were submitted on all Cityside topics. The staffing and workload disparity means the general city team is far better equipped to manage PIRs than the APD's.

Auditors said the police department consistently asks for more staff to help respond to its tens of thousands of new PIRs submitted annually and its backlog of more than 20,000 requests, but additional positions haven't been funded.

Council Member Alison Alter said new data management positions funded for the city's upcoming fiscal year may help with some of the strain on the APD team.

What's next
A wide range of information about Austin's city government is available to the public. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)
A wide range of information about Austin's city government is available to the public. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact)

City auditors proposed several possible updates to Austin's PIR structure, all of which were agreed to by city management. The proposed fixes will be rolled out over the coming months and include:
  • Centralizing management of PIRs between Citywide and APD teams with joint oversight and training: The changes are expected to be completed by this October.
  • Providing more resources, including staff and records management tools, to PIR teams: A new text redaction tool will be in place next month, while a review of APD processes and related recommendations will wrap up in January.
  • Creating standard training and operating procedures for PIR teams, better monitoring the process and its performance, and developing a plan to eliminate the APD's records request backlog: Several changes will be rolled out from this fall through next spring.
  • Educating the public about the PIR process, organizing and publishing frequently requested records and offering information in additional languages: The changes are expected to be implemented by June.
Deputy City Attorney Deborah Thomas said a new joint records request team is being formed to address identified issues. It will include the Cityside PIR manager, a Cityside attorney, a Austin Law Department financial officer, the APD's PIR manager and an attorney representing the APD.

“That group will get together and figure out what the issues are and how we can address them,” Thomas told council members Aug. 23. “Some of those issues are going to be more long-term. One of the major issues, I believe, is going to be to get APD side more staff.”

Thomas added while staffing on the APD side may help with some of the department's delays and high numbers of requests, the city may also explore an automated records system to handle more “routine” asks.