Things to consider when choosing performance audit topics

How does a performance audit shop decide what topics, and which agencies, warrant an audit? After all, a quick scan of your morning newspaper will stir up a seemingly endless number of important public issues. We can’t get to them all- not all at the same time, anyway- so how do we pick one topic over another?

One illuminating response to that question comes from the schedule of the Auditor General of British Columbia:

Because there are more projects than we can carry out, we use a comprehensive and systematic process to select the topics that best meet our mandate and will have the greatest impact. Potential performance audit topics come from:

  • the work we’ve completed and are currently engaged in
  • discussions with stakeholders, including the public service, government and the opposition
  • information and requests from MLAs, the people of B.C. and other stakeholders
  • the work of other audit offices
  • changes to government sectors and programs

Topics

The same considerations largely apply in Oregon as well. Auditors here at the Oregon Audits Division (OAD) work on a wide range of potential topics, limited only by the range and breadth of public services state agencies deliver. In addition to the considerations outlined above, we also look at broader issues that affect multiple agencies and the general public. We consider topics where an audit may add value and clarity to the discussion, or provide guidance to an agency in need of a course correction to achieve its mission and goals. These include areas of great significance to the general population and costs to taxpayers (education, health care, environment), areas prone to risk (IT systems), and many more of the kinds of complex ‘wicked’ problems that require sustained efforts to ensure that they are properly managed.

Timing

The timing of an audit can affect the relevance and value of the audit findings and recommendations. An immediate issue that receives a lot of public attention in March may change drastically by October, so it is worth considering whether to go ahead with an audit when circumstances might render the findings obsolete by the time the report is released. For that reason, we choose topics with much care and an eye to systemic long-term benefits. The results of our audits ideally help public agencies avoid major issues to start with- not just attempt to right what has already gone wrong.

Audit Schedules

Many audit shops prepare and even publish audit schedules well in advance. Some audit topics are requested or mandated, and others are issues (or agencies) that haven’t been visited in a while and are ripe for review. That said, apart from mandated audits, an audit schedule is less a promise than it is a preview of potential coming attractions. Other, more needful, questions may arise between now and the beginning of the next audit schedule. Maintaining some amount of flexibility helps audit shops share a perspective on issues that is timely and useful.

A few audit schedule examples:

Multnomah County Auditor

Auditor General of British Columbia

Audit Scotland

 

OAD and our peers both near and far approach topic selection thoughtfully, deliberately, and with a long list of considerations in mind.

Please consult our website to delve deeper into our recent performance audits, or visit our audit snapshots page to get a taste of our recent performance audit findings.

 

Auditors at Work Featured Performance Audit

Oregon Department of Forestry: Actions Needed to Address Strain on Workforce and Programs from Wildfires

Executive Summary


Three consecutive severe fire seasons have forced the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) to spend more time fighting fires and less time on its other programs. Recent fires have also strained ODF personnel, who often work long hours away from home.

ODF needs to take action to reduce these impacts on personnel and programs. Systematic, long-term workforce planning that takes into account resources needed for both fire and non-fire programs; development of a more effective business improvement process; better evaluation of wildfire prevention and detection measures; and increased mitigation efforts are steps ODF should take to help address current and future challenges.

Read full report here

ODF needs to analyze and clearly communicate full impacts of wildfires on the agency

Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, CC BY

Since 2013, intense fire seasons have resulted in ODF staff spending more time on fire assignments. However, ODF does not currently collect, analyze and communicate to the Legislature and its stakeholders the full impacts of fires on its programs and personnel. This information is necessary for ODF to adequately plan and manage its workforce to meet existing and future demands.

Not only are more employees participating in fire related assignments, but these employees are working much longer hours. Overtime hours spent on fire protection by permanent employees have increased by 197% in recent years.

While the wildfire suppression workload has increased, staffing has not kept pace. ODF is fighting more severe fires with about the same full-time equivalent employees it had nearly 20 years ago. Fires have also created more administrative work, including preparing claims for cost reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies, and making catastrophic wildfire insurance claims and emergency funding requests. To date several of these claims have not been completely processed, which resulted in ODF borrowing to finance these fire related costs. During the past three fire seasons, ODF paid $1.5 million in interest on this borrowing.

ODF staff in Salem and field offices are feeling overworked and are experiencing stress and fatigue as a result of fire related work. Despite the strain of consecutive severe fire seasons, ODF Management reports that employees remain committed to participating in the agency’s firefighting efforts. However, as staff devote more time to wildfire seasons, employees and agency leadership have expressed concerns about ODF’s ability to continue performing at current service levels.

Recent fires have caused delays in work for ODF’s non-fire programs, as employees in these programs are deployed to fire incidents. Examples include delays in developing annual operations plans for state forests, completing Forest Practices Act compliance reporting, and updating bald eagle protection rules. Fires have also created more work for employees in these programs after fires are controlled, such as salvage logging operations and developing and implementing reforestation plans.

Non-fire program contributions to fire response capacity are not fully known

ODF2

Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, CC BY

Non-fire programs contribute to ODF’s firefighting and to maintaining fire readiness. But ODF is not tracking the contributions these programs make, which are absorbed into their respective budgets. While we identified some of these contributions, ODF needs a full accounting of the contributions and related costs to adequately plan for both fire and non-fire work.

Non-fire programs contribute staff hours to fight fires and to Incident Management command and support teams. For example during the last three fire seasons, the average number of hours State Forests Program staff billed to fire protection doubled to 19,038 hours.
These programs also pay other fire-related expenses such as the cost of specialized fire qualification training, and certain fire equipment and supplies. ODF needs better information on these costs and how changes to staffing, funding and workload in these non-fire programs affect fire operation capacity.

Agency wide workforce planning needed

ODF needs a systematic workforce planning process to effectively address current and emerging challenges to its programs and workforce. Workforce analysis is needed to identify gaps and to monitor, evaluate, and revise resources in order to meet the agency’s strategic goals now and in the future. ODF has completed some analysis, but more is needed, and it should include all necessary firefighting resources.

At ODF, workforce planning is complicated by staff who have program duties and firefighting responsibilities; long training times for fire duties; and the need to meet multiple program missions, including responding to wildfires. But complete workforce analysis and planning, that takes these factors into account, can help ODF ensure it sustainably meets both its fire and non-fire responsibilities.

Systematic process for business improvements needed

As fires have increased in recent years, so have the complexity and number of financial transactions associated with suppressing those fires. Today, ODF has systems in place to collect and assess process improvement suggestions, but some are fragmented and incomplete. We found that sometimes suggestions were not fully reviewed and/or implemented, and decisions were not made or communicated.

A better system that fully reviews, implements and communicates decisions made could help ODF address its increased workload by reducing unnecessary costs and inefficiencies. It could also help to improve the alignment between existing resources and program objectives and priorities.

Evaluation of prevention and detection efforts can be improved

ODF takes some proactive steps to prevent and detect wildfires, but the agency does not systematically evaluate the costs and relative effectiveness of different strategies. Evaluating these strategies could help ODF focus its resources on the most cost-effective strategies to keep suppression costs and wildfire damages low. Better information about the money and staff time spent on different prevention and detection activities and fire causes could aid this evaluation.

More work needed to mitigate wildfire risks and target strategies

ODF3

Fuel Reduction. Photo by Oregon State University, CC BY-SA

ODF, private landowners, and federal agencies work to reduce wildfire risks posed by the accumulation of small trees and vegetation in forests resulting from decades of fire suppression, land use changes, past land management practices, and other factors. Despite these efforts, there are millions of acres of land in Oregon in high wildfire risk areas across all ownerships, including federal, state and private lands. Some of this land is highly important to our water supply. The resources currently dedicated to mitigation work are unlikely to meet this challenge. To reduce wildfire risks, some of these areas may need treatment through methods such as prescribed burning, thinning, or removal of forest underbrush in forests and around homes.

Recommendations

This audit recommends ways ODF can build on its current efforts and accomplishments, and make improvements to address current and future challenges. Our detailed recommendations for ODF management are included on Page 31. They include recommendations for collecting and analyzing better information on fire impacts and costs, developing a systematic, future oriented workforce planning process, and enhancing the agency’s business improvement process. We also recommend actions for ODF to improve wildfire prevention, detection, and mitigation efforts.

Agency Response

The agency agrees with the report findings and recommendations. The full agency response can be found at the end of this report.

Featured New Audit Release Noteworthy Performance Audit

Oregon Youth Authority: Female Youth Offenders Need More Transition Options

Executive Summary


Transition services for female youth in state custody lag behind those available to males.  The Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) has opened a transition pilot program for female youth, but funding has only been allocated through mid-2017.

OYA and counties show an interest in improved program reporting, but county program reporting is still inconsistent and incomplete.  Without an accurate picture of program participation, it is difficult to evaluate program effectiveness or forecast service needs for the juvenile justice system.

Read the full report

Female youth are a growing share of the juvenile justice population

Female youth, including both adolescent girls and young women age 16 or older, are a growing portion of the juvenile offender population in Oregon.  While overall youth referrals to juvenile departments have declined since the early 1990s, the decline has been much steeper for male youth offenders.  Referral rates for females have remained comparatively steady.  As a result, the proportion of statewide referrals for female youth in Oregon rose from 33% in 2000 to 37% in 2014.

Female youth have unique treatment needs

sad-teenage-girl-her-worried-mother-problems-49148369Female youth in juvenile justice tend to have more acute physical and mental health needs, and three times as many female youth in OYA custody have attempted suicide as their male counterparts.  A substantial number report previous sexual, physical and emotional abuse, for which they have received little, if any, treatment.  Female youth also tend to respond to untreated trauma differently; they are more likely to run away, and less likely to engage in more criminal acts.  As a result, female youth sometimes do not receive appropriate treatment until their behavior lands them in the juvenile justice system.

Young women in Oregon Youth Authority custody do not have equitable transition services

Three permanent, stand-alone transition facilities for male youth offenders are operated by OYA, but the state does not currently operate an equivalent stand-alone program for female offenders.  OYA has a dedicated building for a female transition program, but has been unable to secure funding to run the full program.  The building had not been used for its intended purpose since its construction in 2010.  OYA opened a transition pilot program in the unused facility in November 2015.

Female youth transition facility near Oak Creek YCF

Female youth transition facility near Oak Creek YCF

Previously, Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility had hosted a limited female transition program within the custody facility. But this arrangement did not allow participants in the program to partake fully in community activities, and taxed staffing resources needed to run Oak Creek.  Should the pilot program not be permanently funded following the trial period, it will have to be moved back to Oak Creek.

Community facilities that provided services to female youth also recently closed, creating a gap in available treatment options.  OYA currently reports on gender disparities as part of its budget request, but a standalone report on gender equity could draw more attention to gaps that should be addressed.

Need for better county program and service tracking

Due to the lack of comprehensive county program data, we were unable to draw system wide conclusions about the effectiveness of treatment and programming for female youth in the juvenile justice system.  Without a clear picture of what programs are being used and how appropriately services are matched with female youth offenders’ needs, it is difficult to evaluate program effectiveness or accurately forecast service needs for the juvenile justice system.

comp2Less than a quarter of Oregon counties report documenting all youth program participation in the Juvenile Justice Information System (JJIS).  Of the county files we reviewed, over half of female youth offenders’ program participation was not documented in a form that can be extracted and analyzed.  This means that the program data reported in JJIS for both female and male youth offenders is incomplete and inconsistent, and cannot be used to analyze trends or inform program evaluations or statewide policymaking decisions.

OYA and county juvenile departments are responsible for comprehensive and accurate program reporting.  However, program reporting is a relatively new function in JJIS, and counties are only required to report participation in state-funded programs.

Recommendations

We recommend:

  • OYA work with the Legislature to seek ongoing funding to operate the Young Women’s Transition Program beyond the pilot period and ensure adequate community services for female youth;
  • OYA consider creating a regular, standalone report to identify and address disparities between transition programming for male and female youth;
  • OYA and county juvenile departments work together to delineate what program information should be captured in JJIS and help ensure that program information is entered consistently; and
  • OYA and county juvenile departments work together to further identify and resolve existing barriers and restrictions to program data entry and collaborate on finding ways to improve program reporting.

Agency Response

The agency coordinated its response with the Oregon Juvenile Department Directors Association, and together they generally agreed with our recommendations.  They intend to work collaboratively to resolve program data entry barriers and help ensure program information is consistently entered into JJIS.  OYA will also pursue ongoing funding for the Young Women’s Transitional Program.  The full agency response can be found at the end of the report.

Featured New Audit Release Performance Audit

Teacher Standards and Practices Commission: Better Oversight and a More Productive Work Environment Could Improve Service to Educators

Executive Summary


Commissioners, management and staff at the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission need to work together to strengthen the agency’s work environment, increase accountability, and boost performance.

The agency has made recent improvements in service to educators. But it still faces substantial backlogs in issuing licenses, investigating complaints against educators, and responding promptly to educator questions.

Our audit responds to House Bill 3339, which the Legislature passed in 2015. It required a Secretary of State audit to examine the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and recommend improvements.

Read the full report.

The Agency and Commission Play a Major Role in K-12 Education

The agency licenses about 19,000 educators a year.

The agency licenses about 19,000 educators a year.

The agency, with 26 employees currently, licenses about 19,000 K-12 educators a year. It also evaluates education programs for teachers at Oregon colleges, and investigates hundreds of complaints against educators each year.

A 17-member commission, appointed by the Governor, oversees the agency. The commissioners, mainly teachers and school district administrators, hire and supervise the executive director.

The Commission sets important policies, including requirements for teacher licenses. It approves teacher education programs, and decides whether to sanction educators for misconduct.

Delays in Core Services are Substantial

For many years, the agency has had substantial delays in issuing licenses, completing investigations and responding to educator questions.

Applicants who filed for licenses in July 2015 faced a four-month wait. Investigation lengths averaged more than 14 months in 2015. Response times to emails from educators have improved, but still average more than a week.

The licensing and customer service delays can damage the agency’s reputation, complicate school district hiring and make it harder on educators looking for jobs. In 2015, more than 1,400 applicants or their school districts paid $99 extra for “expedited” service to bypass licensing delays.

In investigations, delays and high caseloads can weaken evidence and increases the risk to of educator misconduct continuing. Investigative delays can also hurt educators’ job prospects, frustrate complaint filers, and reduce investigative depth.

Cuts to management and staff during the recession contributed to the delays. In 2012, the agency cut six positions. Licensing staff had no direct manager for nearly two years and investigators faced high turnover and high caseloads.

Also contributing to delays: the agency’s complicated, paper-based licensing system, and an inadequate agency website that does not provide answers to basic licensing questions.

The Agency and Commission Need a Sharper Focus on Performance

In 2015, the Oregon Legislature approved license fee increases – the first in 10 years. The increase will allow the agency to add four new positions and replace its outdated licensing system. Starting in early 2016, applicants should be able to file applications and pay online. The Commission also finished a three-year process of simplifying license requirements.

Some improvements are already apparent. Average call hold times fell to less than five minutes last summer, down from 30 minutes in 2014.

tspcpic2Investigators are testing a case triage system that could help reduce investigation lengths. The simpler license requirements and new licensing system should also help improve licensing speeds.

However, we found that the agency still lacks clear expectations and accountability for its performance at all levels, from the Commission through staff.

Evaluations are sporadic, including the Commission’s evaluation of the executive director. Performance tracking is limited. Management’s focus on work process improvement is minimal. Tensions between management and staff have also been substantial, affecting agency performance.

The fee increase will provide for a more stable financial position and help improve staffing. These improvements should allow the agency to focus on building a more productive workplace at all levels, one of its most significant tasks going forward.

Recommendations

Our specific recommendations for management and the Commission are included on pages 25 to 27 of the report. We made recommendations to improve licensing, investigations and customer service.

For management, we also made recommendations to improve the agency’s work environment, such as improving communication, developing performance standards, and providing timely feedback on employee progress.

For the Commission, we made recommendations to improve oversight and accountability. Among them: developing goals for the executive director that include reducing the agency’s backlogs, and conducting regular evaluations based on those goals.

Agency Response

The agency and Commission generally agreed with our recommendations and said they are already addressing some of them. The Commission will prioritize resolving backlogs in licensing and investigations, the response said, and implement changes to improve agency oversight, enhance transparency and increase effectiveness. The full response is at the end of the report.

Featured New Audit Release Performance Audit

Audit Release: Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Needs a Comprehensive Management Strategy to Prioritize Workload and Plan for the Future

Executive Summary


Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has focused on short-term goals, but recurring budget shortfalls have made it difficult for the agency to accomplish everything within its mission. Today’s challenging environment requires ODFW to focus efforts by establishing a comprehensive management strategy, including a long-term plan for how to sustain operations.

 

Read the full report.

Growing challenges need long-term strategy

Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, like other natural resource agencies across the nation, is facing difficult challenges.  Expenses are growing and outpacing revenues.  Responsibilities are expanding.  Fish and wildlife management has an increased workload to protect species and enhance habitats.

As pointed out in our previous audit (ODFW Financial Condition Review, Report No. 2015-09), ODFW’s temporary funding solutions have not addressed its rising expenses and recurring budget shortfalls.  For example, the agency cut positions, including some vacant ones, and has deferred maintenance year after year.  Staff are stretched across growing workloads, and millions of dollars in capital projects will be required for fish hatcheries and other facilities to maintain current operations in the future.

Oregon has had difficulty with its efforts to increase resources.  Commercial fishing fees have not increased since 1989 to help fund the fish Restoration and Enhancement program.  In recent years, measures to increase wildlife conservation funding have only met a small fraction of the need.  The steady decline of hunters and anglers puts the future of reliable licensing revenues in jeopardy.  In 2015, a taskforce was established by the Oregon Legislature to explore alternative funding options for ODFW.

The widening gap between responsibilities and resources makes effectively addressing ODFW’s seven co-equal state goals unsustainable.  We heard numerous concerns that everything was a priority.  Field offices are struggling with their workloads due to rising expectations, lack of resources, and little strategic direction.

ODFWmarkerODFW owns and operates a large portfolio of capital assets.  These assets include hatcheries, field offices, wildlife areas, fishing ponds, and other properties.  Over the years properties have been acquired without a comprehensive asset planning and maintenance strategy.  As a result, some of ODFW’s properties are neglected.

ODFW has not done long-term, agency–wide strategic planning.  Agency leadership needs a comprehensive management strategy to provide clarity of the agency’s vision and expectations, and to guide the agency into the future.  This should include a holistic look at all of the agency’s responsibilities, so that it can set priorities given available resources.  This will help ODFW leadership be proactive in managing what they do and how they do it, better meet new challenges, and respond to additional federal and state mandates or directives.

In developing the management strategy, ODFW should pay particular attention to its practices related to internal communication, goal setting, alignment of workload to mission critical responsibilities and resources, succession planning, and calculating the full cost of service delivery and maintenance.

To more effectively achieve its mission, we recommend ODFW develop and implement a long-term comprehensive management strategy.  This should include a holistic process to identify key priorities and an alignment of workload and resources to the priorities (see Page 22 in the full report for the detailed recommendations).

Agency Response

The agency response is attached at the end of the report. ODFW generally agrees with our recommendations, and currently has efforts underway to address many of them.

Featured New Audit Release Performance Audit

Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division: Some Strategies to Help Address Delays in Evidence Testing

Executive Summary


Forensic analysts at the five laboratories operated by the Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division test most of the forensic evidence in Oregon. Yet, each year, more evidence awaits testing because of the growing demand for the division’s laboratory services. We recommend some ways to better use analyst time, though these improvements fall short of meeting the growing demands for testing. We also found opportunities for the division to better use data and continue planning for a changing workload.

Our audit was substantially complete before allegations were publicly reported about an analyst tampering with evidence. Potential criminal behavior was not disclosed to us by division staff or others during our audit. A criminal investigation into these allegations is underway, and a workgroup appointed by the Governor is evaluating the division’s practices and procedures around evidence control.

Read the full report here

The State Police Provides Forensic Testingosp pic 6

The Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division (division) is the primary provider of forensic testing in Oregon. Approximately 90% of its testing workload is for clients other than the Oregon State Police. The division includes five forensic laboratories statewide and employs 127 employees. In 2014, the division received about 29,500 requests for testing.

The Testing Backlog Is Growing

The National Institute of Justice defines a backlogged case as one untested within 30 days of submission to a crime laboratory. Oregon, like many forensic laboratories throughout the United States, has a backlog of evidence waiting to be tested.

osp pic 2Our audit found Oregon’s backlog has grown 90% since 2005, with around 3,700 untested requests as of January 2015. The division’s backlog has not dipped below 1,600 requests since 2009.

A number of factors affect the growing backlog. The demand for testing has increased 31% since 2005. During the same period, the number of division employees increased only marginally, and those analysts tested less evidence. According to the division, between January 2013 and January 2014, some laboratory director and analyst positions were vacant, and several analysts were on family leave or participating in training. These factors contributed to a large increase in backlog during that period.

Figure 1: Division Backlog

osp pic 7

Casework Improvements Could Help Address Some of Backlog

There are many steps in testing evidence. The division receives evidence from law enforcement agencies, prioritizes it and assigns it to analysts for testing. Analysts apply scientific procedures and document the results. They then provide a report to the law enforcement agencies and attorneys involved in the case.

osp pic 3By investing in new technology and process improvements, the division has tried to reduce testing time while maintaining accuracy. Although the division has made these efforts, the backlog continues to grow.

We found some inefficient practices that if corrected could help the division make better use of analyst time. For example, there are often problems with the request forms law enforcement agencies fill out when submitting evidence to the laboratories. The division has guidelines for law enforcement to follow when filling out these forms and submitting evidence, but does not consistently enforce them.

The division prides itself on providing excellent customer service. There is a perception that enforcing evidence submission guidelines would be bad customer service. As a result, analysts tend to spend time following up with law enforcement to get information before they can begin testing. Additionally, the division is not involved with initial training law enforcement officers receive on how to collect and submit evidence.

Another improvement to casework that could help address the backlog is consistently using electronic notes. These could save analyst time during testing and the case review steps.

osp pic 4Analyst performance reviews are based in part on benchmarks like the number of requests they complete per hour. If an analyst closes a case without providing testing results, their performance numbers will decline. As a result, they sometimes work requests their clients have canceled, wasting valuable resources.

While these changes could help, they would not be sufficient to address the growing demand, year by year, for forensic testing experienced by the division.

Data and Planning to Improve the Division

The division is missing opportunities to reduce its backlog.

Managers of the five forensic crime laboratories could use data to better manage workload. Doing so could reduce the state’s overall backlog. For example, laboratories can do a better job of transferring requests to one another, depending on their capacity to test evidence. Because the division is not systematically reviewing laboratory capacity and transfer options, it is missing additional opportunities to address the backlog throughout the state.

Management has completed some elements of a comprehensive strategic plan but there are pieces missing. The division projects future workload and staffing needs, but does not solicit input from clients when developing these projections. In addition, the performance benchmark data the division uses are incomplete. These benchmarks do not account for time delays caused by incorrect evidence submissions or analysts working on canceled requests that do not serve a judicial purpose.

Recommendations

osp pic 1By continuing its process improvement efforts and better using data, the division can increase analyst productivity and potentially reduce the backlog. We recommend the division:

  • Enforce its evidence submission guidelines and take an active role in the development and delivery of initial forensic training given to law enforcement officers.
  • Consider using a business process improvement tool like Lean Six Sigma to evaluate casework and eliminate unnecessary procedures, implementing electronic notes, and developing a policy for analysts to follow when clients cancel requests for testing.
  • Use data to implement a systematic review of workload transfers.
  • Revise benchmarks to include canceled requests and time spent waiting for law enforcement to correct evidence submissions.
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive strategic plan that includes considerations for laboratory facilities and staffing, and client input to forecast workload.
  • Continue planning for changes in workload.

Agency Response

The agency generally agreed with our findings and recommendations. The full agency response is located at the end of the audit report.

Featured New Audit Release Performance Audit

Audit Release: State Agencies Respond Well to Routine Public Records Requests, but Struggle with Complex Requests and Emerging Technologies

Executive Summary


Oregon state agencies respond well to most public records requests for routine information, but the infrequent complex requests produce challenges. As a result, some requesters believe that agencies deliberately discourage, delay, or block the release of public information.

The Department of Administrative Services should provide guidance and training to help agencies develop procedures, and agencies should create timeliness goals for responding to requests. Better monitoring, consistent fees, use of technology, and third-party mediation could also help with the retention and disclosure of public records and improve trust in Oregon’s government.

Read the full report.

Oregon’s public records law was enacted in 1973. Known primarily as a law of disclosure, the law grants all citizens within the state of Oregon the right to inspect all records – with some exceptions.

When the law first passed, it included 16 classes of records that could be exempt from disclosure for a total of 55 exemptions. Changes and revisions since that time have raised the total number of exemptions in Oregon law to more than 400. The intent, however, remains the same: that Oregon’s government is accessible and transparent to its people.

For our audit, we examined nine agencies of varying sizes and missions to capture a fuller picture of public records in Oregon state agencies. The nine agencies were:

  • The Department of Human Services
  • The Oregon Employment Department
  • The Department of Environmental Quality
  • The Public Employees Retirement System
  • The Oregon Liquor Control Commission
  • The Oregon Department of Education
  • The Oregon Real Estate Agency
  • The Oregon State Board of Nursing
  • The Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision

Agencies handle routine requests well, struggle with complex ones

We found that public records requests generally fall into one of two categories. The first is routine requests, or common requests for information that agencies have easy and ready access to. These requests, which generally make up 90 percent or more of an agency’s total requests, can be fulfilled at little to no cost and within a couple of weeks.

The other category is non-routine or complex requests. These are voluminous in scope, ask for “any and all” information, or are otherwise complicated for an agency to complete. These are the requests that can take weeks or months to fulfill and often at a high cost.

In the selected files we reviewed, we found no evidence to suggest that agencies were regularly taking an unreasonably long time, or charging unreasonably high fees, to respond to records requests. But when agencies struggle to respond to complex, non-routine requests, it can foster suspicion and distrust, which in turn can undermine the credibility and transparency of both the agency and Oregon government.

To address this distrust, some states and provinces have established a neutral, third-party entity that helps mediate disagreements between requesters and agencies. An ombudsman or commission can help determine when a request is too broad or when an agency is taking an unreasonably long time to respond. Oregon has no such mechanism. The Attorney General’s role is limited to denials based on exemptions and fee waivers.

Agencies retain public records longer than required

It is important that agencies properly retain and manage their public records so they can be efficiently located and disclosed in response to a records request. To do this, agencies must follow their retention schedules – guidelines, created and authorized by the Archives Division, that determine how long certain records must be kept before they are destroyed or transferred to the State Archives for permanent retention.

But we found that agencies are keeping too many records for too long, resulting in a large volume of information. Some employees are too cautious about accidentally deleting or losing track of a public record, and so have a tendency to “keep everything.”

We found that better management tools and specific training on the issue of record retention may help state employees better manage records. This can reduce the volume of public information statewide and assist agencies to more efficiently respond to public records requests.

Exemptions remain an issue and may require a closer look

Exemptions – those instances in which a record may be exempt from disclosure – make up a major portion of Oregon’s public records law.

Agencies generally understand which exemptions most commonly apply to the records in their care. But due to the sheer number of exemptions in the law, including how they are worded and where in statute they are located, staff sometimes must consult with experts or the Department of Justice.

There is a perception among some requesters that agencies inappropriately use exemptions to block the release of public information. Most of Oregon’s exemptions are applied at the agency’s discretion. After weighing the public interest, these records may be disclosed even if an exemption applies. The exception is confidential information, which is legally prohibited from release.

These issues regarding exemptions are not new. After a national report gave Oregon a failing grade in government transparency eight years ago, state officials closely examined the law and accepted feedback from requesters and public officials. Their findings, published in 2010 as the Attorney General’s Government Transparency Report, found that “Any meaningful overhaul of Oregon’s public records law must reorganize and make coherent sense of the numerous exemptions.”

A bill was subsequently introduced in the 2011 legislative session to address some of these recommendations, but it failed to pass. A task force was recently convened by the Attorney General to examine in greater detail the issues of exemptions in Oregon law.

Variations in responses frustrate some requesters

Requesters expect their government will be transparent and open, that fees charged for requests will be reasonable and records will be made available as quickly as possible. They expect agencies that fail to do so will be held accountable.

But variation among agencies’ responses to records requests – in both fees and timeliness – can lead to confusion and frustration among requesters when they are not sure what kind of response to expect.

Agencies charge differing fees to provide public information. This variation extends to both the fees for copying costs and the charge for staff time to respond to a request. Agencies charge anywhere from $0.05 to $0.25 per page in copying costs, and from $15 to $40 per hour for staff time.

We also found a time variation among agencies in responding to requests, due largely to the differences between routine and non-routine requests. First, agencies have varying internal guidelines for what it means to be timely, if they have any internal guidelines at all. Second, timeliness depends largely on the type of request an agency receives. We found that routine requests were fulfilled within 14 days, while non-routine requests could take upwards of 265 days to fulfill.

We saw no evidence to suggest that adding a specific deadline in law would positively affect agencies’ abilities to respond to requests in a timely fashion. But agencies that set internal guidelines or goals to respond to

requests hold themselves accountable to requesters while maintaining the flexibility provided in Oregon law.

Agencies are not keeping up with changing technologies

Oregon’s public records law was updated in 2011 to extend the definition of a public record to electronic or digital messages. Agencies have taken a longer time to update their own policies to include emerging technologies such as email, text, and instant messages.

More than half of the agencies we examined had policies to address email as it relates to public records. But only one agency had specific language to address the use of a personal or private email account in conducting the public’s business. Only one agency had a policy to address the use of instant messages, and no agencies had policies regarding text messages, as public records.

A few agencies have adopted policies to address social media, which appear to draw language from the Social Networking Media guide provided by the Department of Administrative Services.

Technologies like those mentioned above have changed how government and its agencies communicate with the public. Technology can also help agencies improve transparency by being proactive and making information available online. Several agencies have done so with commonly requested information, which can help reduce the overall number of public records requests.

Recommendations

Our recommendations are addressed to three groups: the Department of Administrative Services (DAS), all state agencies, and the Oregon Legislature.

We recommend the Department of Administrative Services create statewide, standard rates for copying and rates for employee labor, to resolve some of the inconsistency in public records requests fees statewide. We also recommend they provide guidance to agencies regarding communication technologies as they relate to public records, including personal email, text and instant messages, and social media.

For agencies, we recommend they create policies and procedures to clearly address communication technologies under the guidance of DAS. We also recommend they adopt tools to help manage both record retention and public records requests.

For the Legislature, we recommend they consider creating a neutral third-party, such as an ombudsman, to mediate disputes between requesters and agencies. We also encourage them to consider the forthcoming results from the Attorney General’s task force for any recommended changes regarding the public records law.

For a complete list of our recommendations, see page 24 in the full report.

Agency Response

The response from the Department of Administrative Services is attached at the end of the report.

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