2021 AgencyWebsite ReviewAn analysis of the Right-to-Know Law request information provided on localand state government websites across Pennsylvania333 Market Street, 16th FloorEmail: [email protected], PA 17101-2234Website: www.openrecords.pa.gov(717) 346-9903Twitter: @OpenRecords
2INTRODUCTIONBeginning in May of 2021, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) embarkedon an inaugural review of how local and Commonwealth agencies post information explaininghow to submit Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) requests on their websites. This review wasconducted to develop best practices for communicating this information from the agency to thepublic in a way that is easy to find, easy to understand, and complies with RTKL requirements.The RTKL1 requires any agency maintaining a website to provide basic records requestinformation. Beyond satisfying this statutory requirement, agencies should strive to makesubmitting a RTKL request straightforward and easy. Incomplete, confusing, difficult to find, ornonexistent information is a major deterrent to transparency and, in turn, accountability. Acitizen’s inability to find such information could lead him or her to conclude that an agency isnot subject to the RTKL or to simply give up and not file a request; in addition, it may be acontributing factor in the hundreds of misdirected requests that the OOR and other agenciesreceive every year.The results of this review are mixed. Nearly all (91 percent) the agencies in the samplemeet the basic requirement of posting information. However, just 50 percent provide all threeof the required pieces of information.2 All agencies across Pennsylvania should utilize thefindings and recommendations of this report to review their RTKL webpage and post all of thelegally required information. None of the requirements are complex; for example, providingcontact information for the OOR is often a simple copy and paste on to any webpage.65 P.S. §§ 67.101 et seq.An agency is not required to have regulations, policies, and procedures relating to the RTKL, but must providethem if they do exist.12
3METHODOLOGYThe OOR selected a sample of 135 agencies across Pennsylvania and reviewed whatRTKL information each provides and the ease of finding that information on each agency’swebsite. The sample includes Commonwealth agencies, counties, cities, townships, boroughs,school districts, charter schools, cyber charter schools, municipal authorities, policedepartments, community colleges, and PASSHE universities. The breakdown of the samplecan be found in “Appendix A” below.The OOR plans to conduct this review biannually and will continually work with both thepublic and agencies to ensure that agency webpages comply with all RTKL requirements. Thiswill include continuing to communicate with agencies when alerted by the public that the RTKLinformation is incomplete or missing.
4MEETING THE REQUIREMENTSSection 504(b) of the RTKL requires that certain basic information be posted on anagency’s website if one exists.Below is the verbatim language from the law with thecompliance rate for those agencies in the sample that maintain a website.“Posting.--The following information shall be posted at each agency and, if theagency maintains an Internet website, on the agency's Internet website:”Contact information for the open-records officer96% complyContact information for the Office of Open Records or other62% complyapplicable appeals officerA form which may be used to file a request81% complyRegulations, policies, and procedures of the agency59% complyrelating to this actJust 50 percent of agencies provide contact information for the agency office records,contact information for the Office of Open Records, and a request form.No RTKL request information existed for 28 agencies in the sample. This includes: Five agencies that do not operate a website;Eleven police departments that utilize the municipality’s RTKL process; andTwelve agencies that operate a website but the OOR could not locate any RTKLinformation.The OOR wrote to each of the 12 agencies with websites that did not provide RTKLinformation and requested a response by a certain deadline. Eight posted RTKL information totheir websites; three said that they are in the process of updating their websites with theinformation; and one did not respond.33La Academia Partnership Charter School (Lancaster County) did not respond to letters, emails, and phone calls.
5ENHANCED RTKL REQUEST INFORMATION4Many agencies go beyond the legal requirements and provide RTKL request informationthat simplifies the RTKL process and makes it easier for an inexperienced requester. Thisapproach benefits the public as well as the agency by minimizing confusion and mistakes,saving time.Overall, the agencies in the sample that maintain a website do a decent job makingRTKL information prominent or easy to locate: 56% have a link to RTKL information on their homepage (on page or in drop-downmenu);75% have a website search bar which successfully produces RTKL info whensearching for “Right to Know”; and92% can use a search engine (ex. Google) to successfully locate RTKL pagewhen searching agency name and “right to know”.A majority of agencies provide multiple ways to contact their Agency Open RecordsOfficer (AORO): 66% provide the AORO name;84% provide an AORO email address (including 48% who utilize a resourceaccount);55% provide an AORO phone number;86% provide an AORO mailing address;63% provide an AORO fax number; and23% provide all of the above.Both the agency and the public are helped when frequently requested records andinformation items are posted to the agency webpage. This efficient and effective approachreduces RTKL requests, saving everyone time. In our sample, just 29 percent proactivelyprovide these types of records on their webpage.4All the subsequent figures are among agencies that maintain a website.
6BEST PRACTICESAn agency dedicated to transparency should use its website to provide comprehensive,accessible information on how to submit a RTKL request. Ideally, a first-time requester shouldneed only a few minutes to locate all the information required to make their request.Outlined below are best practices for RTKL webpages.1. Easy to locate. Finding where RTKL information is located on a website should notbe an arduous task. Appendix B provides screenshots of good examples. The RTKLrequest information should be: Linked to a homepage, either in a bottom banner or in drop-down menuthat is easily noticed and user-friendly, andSearchable via search engine and via search function on website (if oneexists) and easily found using common sense terms that apply to the RTKLprocess.2. Comprehensive information for AORO. The name, phone number, email address,mailing address, and fax number should be displayed.3. A resource email account for the AORO. Using a resource account, versus theAORO’s unique email address, helps prevent missed statutory deadlines in the eventthat the AORO is out-of-office or leaves the agency.4. Printable and electronic request forms. Scanners are not in all households; anagency should provide for electronic submission of RTKL request forms, as well asa printable version.5. Provide current contact information for the OOR with clear explanation of role andtimeline of appeal. Several agencies display outdated contact information for theOOR5; others display information in a way that may lead individuals to believe thatinitial RTKL requests should be submitted to the OOR. This is evidenced in part bythe over 900 misdirected RTKL requests the OOR receives each year. Appendix Cdisplays a good example of how to communicate the OOR’s role in the RTKLprocess.The OOR’s current mailing address is 333 Market Street, 16 th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17101 and its current webaddress is www.openrecords.pa.gov5
76. Include links to frequently requested items. This can be either the actual records, orif misdirected, suggest where to obtain those records. A good example can be ion.7. Include regulations, policies, and procedures related to the RTKL. If these exist, theyshould be included on the webpage.8. All police departments should include RTKL request info. If the police departmentutilizes a local municipality’s AORO, the police department’s website (or webpage)should clearly explain that and include a link to that information.9. All the above should be provided on one webpage. Each agency should have acentralized one-stop location for all RTKL request information. A good example ofthis is the Department of Labor and Industry, .In crafting this report, the OOR improved its own RTKL request webpage andimplemented improvements to make it easier to use. The new webpage can be rm.cfm.
8NEXT STEPSIn an effort to improve agencies’ communication of RTKL information, the OOR createda simple, one-page sample webpage. The sample webpage is in Appendix D and is alsoavailable to download on our website dix E-TransparencyTownship.docx.We encourage the public to utilize this sample to both compare it to the information theiragency provides on its webpage as well as referring their agency to it so that all the informationnecessary to successfully file a RTKL request is readily available.
9APPENDIX ASample BreakdownBoroughs (12) Clearfield BoroughEldred BoroughJim Thorpe BoroughLaceyville BoroughLewistown BoroughPhoenixville BoroughRamey BoroughRidgway BoroughSelinsgrove BoroughSpartansburg BoroughSwarthmore BoroughWest Liberty BoroughCharter Schools (6) Baden Academy Charter SchoolBear Creek Charter SchoolCommunity Academy of PhiladelphiaCharter SchoolKeystone Education Charter SchoolLa Academia Partnership Charter SchoolYork Academy Regional Charter SchoolCities (10) Allentown CityConnellsville CityEaston CityLebanon CityMonongahela CityPhiladelphia CityPittsburgh CityScranton CitySharon CityWilliamsport CityCommunity Colleges (3) Harrisburg Area Community CollegeNorthampton Area Community CollegePennsylvania Highlands CommunityCollegeCounties (8) Beaver CountyChester CountyClinton CountyLackawanna CountyLuzerne CountyMontgomery CountySomerset CountyVenango CountyCyber Charter Schools (3) Chester Community Cyber Charter SchoolCommonwealth Cyber Charter SchoolPennsylvania Cyber Charter SchoolMunicipal Authorities (4) Area Transportation Authority of NorthCentral PennsylvaniaMeadville Area Water AuthorityMontgomery County Housing AuthoritySoutheastern Pennsylvania TransportationAuthority (SEPTA)PA State System of Higher Education (3) Lock Haven University of PennsylvaniaMansfield University of PennsylvaniaShippensburg University of PennsylvaniaPolice Departments (15) York City Police DepartmentDanville Borough Police DepartmentErie Police DepartmentHarrisburg Police DepartmentHonesdale Police DepartmentHuntingdon Borough Police DepartmentNew Castle Police DepartmentNorthern Lancaster Regional PoliceDepartmentPhiladelphia Police DepartmentPittsburgh Police DepartmentReading Police DepartmentRidley Township Police DepartmentSouthern Chester County Regional PoliceDepartmentSpring Township Police DepartmentMarion Township Police Department
10School Districts (27) Altoona Area School DistrictBensalem Area School DistrictBlue Mountain School DistrictCameron County School DistrictCentral Bucks School DistrictClarion Area School DistrictCoatesville School DistrictDelaware Valley School DistrictErie City School DistrictFranklin Area School DistrictGettysburg Area School DistrictHazleton Area School DistrictHighlands School DistrictMorrisville Area School DistrictMercer Area School DistrictMountain View School DistrictOld Forge School DistrictPenns Manor Area School DistrictPhiladelphia School DistrictPittsburgh School DistrictSchool District of LancasterShikellamy School DistrictSomerset Area School DistrictSouth Middleton Area School DistrictState College Area School DistrictSusquehanna Township School DistrictUpper St. Clair School DistrictState Agencies (30) PA Department of AgingPA Department of AgriculturePA Department of BankingPA Department of CorrectionsPA Department of Community andEconomic DevelopmentPA Department of Drug and AlcoholProgramsPA Department of Environmental ProtectionPA Department of General ServicesPA Department of Human ServicesPA Department of Military and VeteransAffairsPA Department of HealthPA Department of StatePA Fish and Boat CommissionPA Game CommissionPA Gaming Control BoardPA Office of the GovernorPA Independent Fiscal OfficePA Department of Labor and IndustryPA Office of AdministrationPA Office of the BudgetPA State System of Higher EducationPA Department of EducationPA Emergency Management AgencyPA Department of TransportationPA Higher Education Assistance AgencyPA Liquor Control BoardPA State Employees Retirement SystemPA State PolicePA Department of RevenuePA School Employees Retirement SystemTown and Townships (14) Bloomsburg TownHickory TownshipHomer TownshipJuniata TownshipKelly TownshipLower Merion TownshipMonroe TownshipOley TownshipPocono TownshipPolk TownshipSt. Clair TownshipSugar Creek TownshipTroy TownshipWalker Township
11APPENDIX BExample of RTKL Info on Homepage Footer
12Example of RTKL Info on Homepage Drop Down Menu
13APPENDIX CExample of Explaining the Role of OOR
14APPENDIX DPrototype of Ideal RTKL Webpage
15APPENDIX EAbout the OORThe Office of Open Records (OOR) was created in 2008 by passage of Pennsylvania’sRight-to-Know Law (RTKL). The objective of the RTKL is to empower citizens by affordingthem access to information concerning the activities of their government.As an independent quasi-judicial agency, the office is authorized to hear and decideappeals from requesters who have been denied access to records by state and local agencies.Since 2008, it has decided more than 25,000 appeals. The OOR provides formal training onthe RTKL, as well as Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act. More information about the OOR can befound on its website, www.openrecords.pa.gov
Charter Schools (6) Baden Academy Charter School Bear Creek Charter School Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter School Keystone Education Charter School La Academia Partnership Charter School York Academy Regional Charter School Cities