Finding out how the public uses Hawaii’s open records law isn’t easy. And it’s not cheap either.

And that’s despite a state requirement that agencies send a report to the Hawaii Office of Information Practices every year about public records requests. Turns out virtually none of them are doing it.

Case in point: The Hawaii Department of Human Services wants $123,000 to look at all public records requests it received in the last year.

Officials there say it will take 11,591 man-hours — or a year and four months — to search for the records and copy an estimated 2,500 pages of documents.

Civil Beat is trying to understand how people make use of Hawaii’s open records law and how effective it is. We’ve asked 29 state agencies to allow us to review the records requests they’ve received since the start of the Abercrombie administration. That time period would give us roughly one year of records. We also asked for their responses to those requests, including any fees levied for documents.

Some agencies — including the Human Services department — have made every effort to work with Civil Beat on this project. Nine departments fulfilled our request free of charge.

But it has been a struggle for most departments to provide the data because many say they just don’t track public records request.

In the Department of Human Service’s case, we excluded requests from people wanting to see something in their own file. Still, in order to determine how many public records requests the agency has handled in the last year, the department said it would have to examine 170,000 case files located in multiple locations and warehouses.

That department’s case highlights the lack of a consistent state policy for tracking Hawaii’s open records law. Several agencies didn’t even respond or acknowledge our request within 10 business days, despite a legal requirement to do so.

And there is a state requirement that they track at least some requests.

The Office of Information Practices (OIP) requires agencies to record the number of requests it received that resulted in fees charged.

Yet the Department of Human Service’s public information office said it was not familiar with the reporting requirement and has not submitted a report to OIP in recent memory.

The agency is not alone in violating this reporting requirement, which has been on the books since 1999.

“Very few (agencies) are complying, which is why we’re testing a new log right now that would provide us with more information,” said OIP Director Cheryl Kakazu Park. “That’s why we’re not bugging the agencies about that.”

Park said she started reevaluating the rule about the same time the Civil Beat made its request.

“It was just about the same time as you. Just about same time as you guys came out,” she said.

Park said she was interested in tracking whether departments are able to resolve records requests within a month and the state’s time and cost involved in each request. She’s currently having one or two agencies test a revamped recording log.

If all goes well, she’ll introduce this revamped recording log to the rest of the state after the legislative session.

This is just the first of a series of stories we plan to publish on how citizens are making use of the public records law. Watch for future installments of Not So Public as we explore the issues underlying access to public information and how state officials are responding.

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