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Transit Agencies: Earn Public Trust Through Transparency

November 14, 2019
photograph of inside of a station with How Transit Agencies are Earning Public Trust Through Transparency title text

The numbers of citizens using transit continues to grow, but trust and confidence in recent years has weakened for many transit agencies. Quality of service and safety issues threaten ridership and degrade confidence, while further obfuscation by agencies only add fuel to public outrage. Frustrated by a lack of transparency, people are fighting back, even in the form of lawsuits, as was the case against Washington D.C.’s Metro - a lawsuit challenging the near-complete redaction of a request at an unjustified cost.

It is in your agency’s best interest to maintain the goodwill of the public. This is the key to securing funding in the future. If people see the system as untrustworthy, they will question whether investing more money is the answer. What, then, is the best way to maintain trust with the public?

Transparency is the way forward. In this modern age, where people expect a great deal from the corporations and agencies they spend their time and money on, you get a lot if you give. Being proactively transparent fosters goodwill and bolsters trust. As the Sunlight Foundation puts it: “Transit agencies also often suffer from a lack of accountability due to complex governance structures. It is often unclear who transit agencies are accountable to... It can be easy for transit officials to pass the blame to others, and difficult for voters to “have their say” on transit issues. For these reasons, it’s especially important for transit agencies to embrace the highest standards for transparency.”

Many transit agencies have already taken this directive on, creating their own FOIA structure, procedures and benchmarks. And many of our own clients are transit agencies, seeing the advantage of adopting record request software as a way to stay on task with their transparency, and as a way to efficiently handle requests without the public service becoming a burden.

Transparency Leaders

Kitsap Transit, an agency serving Kitsap County and the Seattle metropolitan area, keeps in compliance with the Public Disclosure Law of the State of Washington (per RCW 42.56) by using NextRequest to manage their records requests.

Among the benefits of intake and processing requests through FOIA software, Kitsap Transit takes advantage of the ability to make requested and released documents searchable and fully accessible to the public. By opening access to previously-released documents, they are saving themselves from the burden of duplicated effort; and in turn, saving time and money in the process.

Time Saver: Diverting Requests

It’s easy to divert requests within your NextRequest portal. Upon accessing your agency’s portal, requesters can immediately choose to search records that have already been made public. They are able to search by keyword, request date, contact or department.

A standard NextRequest portal homepage

If a requester chooses this path and finds their own query, there is an instant gratification on their side to find records so easily given, thereby creating a sense of goodwill and satisfaction. For your agency, that same choice means zero effort duplicated in locating and responding to the request.

If a requester chooses not to search, and simply goes into the portal to make a new request, their request can still be diverted if they are asking for records that have previously been released. Agencies can set up keyword alerts within their NextRequest dashboard to divert these requests.

NextRequest's Keyword Alert Feature

When a requester enters keywords associated with those records you have already released, they see an alert that nudges them to exit that request and find what they are looking for, without adding another request to your queue.

As an added measure of control, you can choose to “unpublish” documents at any time, so you still maintain control over records made public.

Rebuilding Goodwill

Like the aforementioned DC Metro, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has also faced its own share of public scrutiny and outcry. Factors such as a string of incidents with BART police, as well as the decreasing quality of trains have added to public satisfaction taking a downturn in recent years. Even as BART rolls out its fleet of new trains, they have taken a decided step further toward fostering goodwill: increasing transparency. In fall of 2019, BART launched its open public records request portal, to “provide documents to the public in a broader, more efficient way.” As BART District Secretary Patricia Williams states, “Managing public records in an open, easy-to-use online portal is a great way to help with our responsiveness. We receive over 300 CPRA requests every year. This solution modernizes our approach to those requests.”

Increasing Responsiveness

Indeed as the number of requests increase, the need for efficiency increases in kind. If making records accessible is the first step in building trust with the public, responsiveness is the second. Luckily, NextRequest creates an all-in-one solution that lets agencies receive and manage requests, plus manage workflows and tasks, and message and invoice requesters. Responding to requesters and releasing documents is fast, easy and clearly organized. Additionally, requesters can track the progress of their request, which gives them a level of transparency they wouldn’t otherwise get. From the perspective of the public, instead of sending an email or phone call into the void of government bureaucracy, they know for certain that the agency in question is committed to a timely and productive response. The portal increases responsiveness, transparency, and creates an instant relationship with the public.

Requests on the Rise

Year over year the number of records requested has risen. From 2017 to 2018, federal agencies alone received 5.6% more requests. As federal agencies strive to process the uptick in requests, local agencies, whose resources vary, struggle to keep up with requests coming in. Transit agencies face similar financial and administrative scrutiny, with an additional level of awareness that belongs to a daily ridership keenly focused on their commute.

As with any public entity, transit agencies field inquiries into spending of funds, which includes updates to its system, and future planning. The public wants to know their tax dollars are being spent wisely. An added layer to record requests that other types of agencies don’t see, is videos of incidents involving the public.

People have the right to feel safe, as well as know where their money is being spent. Requests for text records, video records, financials and more will only increase in the years to come. Keeping that bond of trust strong is as important as ever. Keeping information accessible and being transparent as an agency is the way forward.