Oklahoma lawmakers are running out of time to reach an agreement on a bill that would create a centralized online portal for state documents and open records requests.
While lawmakers and open government advocates around the state believe the ideals at the heart of the legislation are worthy ones, concerns about its cost and IT implications have held up the bill with just over two weeks left before the end of the legislative session.
The legislation would task the IT division of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (also known as OMES) and Chief Information Officer Bo Reese with developing “openrecords.ok.gov” and provide a website to let people request records from all of the state’s agencies in one place. The state’s IT shop would then have to work with agencies to release any responsive documents electronically, and immediately post those records to “data.ok.gov.”
“Having this one-stop shop will make it easier and more accessible for people, so we can have more oversight of the government,” Dahm told StateScoop.
Dahm also sees the portal eliminating duplicate requests, since the results of all previous records requests will be publicly available online, if the bill is enacted, saving the state time and money in the process. He credited Rep. Jason Murphey with championing such an initiative for years.
“It evolved as we enacted the consolidation of state agency IT entities,” Murphey said. “The initial benefits were the cost savings and increased security, but the secondary ones relate to the ability to cut through the bureaucracies and any of their attempts to keep matters from being transparent.”
Indeed, Murphey said he envisions the IT office serving as a neutral “ombudsman” to manage records requests. It could also deliver documents “through web-based services that the agency might not have a tendency to utilize because their focus isn’t IT.”
This year’s version of the bill “has gotten farther than it ever has before,” according to Murphey, but it still faces some substantial hurdles to passing. While Cockroft and Dahm’s original legislation would have required OMES to create the new portal by Nov. 1, the office pushed back on that timeline, claiming it would have caused the cost of the project to balloon to roughly $2.5 million by requiring more staffers to work on the website.
That sort of expense wasn’t palatable to legislators, given the state’s $1.3 billion budget shortfall, so Dahm said they attempted to find some middle ground by extending the deadline by a full year.
“We extended it out, to give them a bit more of a time to reuse and modify some of the existing projects OMES has, so there shouldn’t be any cost factor to it at all,” Dahm said.
Murphey said there are no “significant obstacles to implementation,” and that OMES has the necessary systems to make the portal happen quickly, but he fears that bureaucratic resistance to project has bedeviled the legislation. Neither Reese nor a spokesman for the office responded to StateScoop’s requests for comment on the bill.
“I think this is a self-funding solution, and if it’s properly implemented, the upfront cost should be almost nonexistent and the savings instantaneous,” Murphey said.
Dahm said he and Cockroft are currently working with OMES to hammer out further changes to the legislation. Open government advocates, meanwhile, have a few alterations they’d like to see emerge from that process.
Bill Young, president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, Inc., said he’s heard from many of the state’s public information officers who worry that they won’t get the same chance to provide context about the documents they release if they’re immediately forced to post them in an online portal.
“Some of them feel that putting that record up on this kind of portal goes around them and they don’t get to tell the whole story,” Young said.
Brady Henderson, legal director for the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is more concerned about the specificity of the bill’s language. Though he’s generally supportive of the effort, he worries that the legislation could pass, but prove to be ineffective because it doesn’t address subjects like what file formats documents should be released in or which agency has the authority to set rules about the process.
“The devil’s in the details,” Henderson said. “If it’s not carefully done, it can actually make things worse.”
Dahm is sensitive to those concerns, but he believes there are “much more positives than negatives” to the bill, and he thinks he’ll be able to shepherd the bill out of the conference committee in time for another set of floor votes before the session ends on May 27.
Young fears the timing means the bill could be “doomed.” Henderson is similarly cautious, but he thinks it could be part of the type of “multi-year” effort that’s come to define the movement of legislation in the state in recent years.
“Because it’s part of this big national arc in this direction, I don’t expect it to go away,” Henderson said. “Eventually, we’re going to move in this direction, it’s just a question of does it look like what’s in this bill or is it a little different at some point.”
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