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Online Records, With a Hint of More to Come

The University of Texas System is publishing a little bit of public information online in a way that makes it obvious what it ought to do next.

University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall, Jr. laughs during The Role of Regents panel at TribFest on September 28, 2013.

The University of Texas System, like any other gargantuan department of government, has mountains of public records available — eventually — to anyone who asks.

Everybody from reporters to members of the board of regents to curious Texans ask for all types of information — contracts, transcripts of prospective employees, lists of people interviewed for coaching positions and so on.

UT’s website even has a link to a database of requests made under the state’s Open Information Act, where it lists who made the request, when it was made and a description of what was being sought.

It does not, however, include the actual public records that those requesters asked for; to get that, you must file your own request, creating a trail that allows the rest of us to see what you were seeking. And UT has to fulfill your order, repeating some or all of the work it did for the first requester.

That other trail, which would have made your second request unnecessary, is not there. The records themselves remain, for now, behind the moat.

It’s tantalizingly close to real transparency, available to anyone who can get online and poke around.

This is not entirely fair to UT: The system is getting picked on here because it offers a half-answer online, where most government agencies offer none. They are showing the requests to all comers — much more than their counterparts are showing.

But as the song reminds us, you can’t always get what you want. It doesn’t seem to matter who you are, either: Regent Wallace Hall is sitting in the middle of a hot skillet right now in part because of his requests for public information. He asked the University of Texas at Austin to assemble some records for him — his antagonists say he was also trying to micromanage that school — and for that and related reasons, he’s the subject of a legislative impeachment inquiry.

The system’s database is a goldmine for the curious. In December, someone asked how much it cost UT to fight the actor Ryan O’Neal over an Andy Warhol picture of Farrah Fawcett. In October, a requester sought “aggregate ACT scores in reading and English and the aggregate SAT reading and writing scores for student athletes participating in football and basketball.”

It can be useful to see what others are after. Reporters do it, trying to catch up with their competitors. Political opposition researchers do it. So do business researchers who want to know what others are seeking from regulators and licensing agencies and so on.

Posting what people are requesting only whets the appetite for more. Just think if the answers were online, too.

The schools could avoid extra work while providing real transparency into the records that are supposed to be in public view anyhow. Last March, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, asked UT for “all emails, correspondence, documents, and any other records related to conversations, documents, interactions, meetings, reports, or exchanges about UT President Bill Powers that included any member of the UT Board of Regents.” We know that because UT put it online. Just think if the answer went online for everyone else as soon at the senator got it. She and Hall were after some of the same records, after all.

It sparks the imagination: What if other government agencies put this type of information out there, allowing everyone to see what they hold in their file cabinets, what they deem secret, what they redact and don’t redact, what other requesters have coaxed them to reveal.

UT started its open records database at the system level in April 2012 and extended it to the individual campuses less than a year later. “The idea of including the full records is something that’s under consideration,” according to Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman. It makes some sense, once it has been pulled, to leave it out for others, so long as that doesn’t create undue burdens on UT, she said.

Someday, it might all be online. For that, you can thank the regent who suggested it. His name is Wallace Hall.

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