If you’re not a Washington State public servant you might assume that RCW 42.56 is a droid in the latest installment of the Star Wars saga. And while that would make this article considerably more exciting, the designation actually refers to the Washington State Public Records Act.
This important piece of legislation helps to guarantee citizens access to public records in a timely fashion. If you represent a state agency, then this is indeed the droid you’re looking for, because it can affect everything you do, including website design. State websites contain data that are a part of the public record, and therefore must comply with the regulations.
We’ve designed a number of sites for state agencies and know what it takes to successfully implement the law. What follows are a few of the tricks we use to build sites that are user-friendly and properly available for records requests.
Make Your Site RCW 42.56 Compliant Using a Cloud Backup
Unlike a paper document, websites aren’t static. Information is regularly added, updated, and removed. This can be problematic for compliance purposes because citizens have the right to request website information, even if it’s no longer present.
We get around this problem for our government clients by maintaining daily website backups in the cloud. These backups are date specific. If someone requests the website as it existed three months ago on a specific day, we can deliver that.
We can extend backups as far back as necessary for record keeping, even indefinitely. This trick guarantees that critical public information is always available, as required under RCW 42.56.
Use a Web Form to Send Information Requests to the Appropriate Parties
Under Washington State’s Public Records Act, citizens may make information requests any way they see fit. Standardized forms do exist, but they need not be used. In theory, a citizen could submit a legitimate record request on a fresh-baked lasagna, written in silly string.
More conveniently though, they could make a request through a web form built into a state agency’s website. We regularly include this functionality on sites we design. We place a large “Public Records Request” button on the home page where it’s easy for users to see. This takes them to a web form that sends their request electronically, directly into the inboxes of the people that need it.
Is it easy? Yes, it’s easy. Is it convenient? Absolutely. Is it magic? Well, no, but it certainly feels like it.
Add a Document Browser for Easy Access to Large Records Collections
RCW 42.56 mandates that agency representatives must reply to all requests for information within five days. This can be challenging when a number of requests come in at once. One way to limit the number of requests received is to make large collections of documents available for direct download. But trying to make hundreds or thousands of public records available using manually added web page links is clunky and hard to maintain. And it’s even harder for citizens to navigate.
Instead, we sometimes embed a document browser inside an agency’s website that links to a Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive account. This lets agencies easily add and organize records using a method they’re already familiar with. On the front end, the document browser presents these records using a simple interface that’s searchable and easy to use. Here’s an example of a document browser we deployed for South Pierce Fire & Rescue.
Let’s be honest. The best records requests are the ones you never get. A document browser increases their frequency.
RCW 42.56: A Note About Privacy
Washington State’s Public Records Act includes voluminous exemptions intended to protect private information from being shared through the act. You can peruse the full text here. It’s important to be familiar with these when making records available to avoid inadvertently releasing exempted private information.
We should also mention that we aren’t lawyers. We’re web developers and IT professionals. The information in this article is presented for educational purposes. It shouldn’t be construed as legal advice because it most definitively isn’t.
Let Puget Tech Make Your Website RCW 42.56 Compliant
If you’re a Washington State agency in need of a website or mobile app, you can trust us to build a practical, dependable solution that’s fully compliant with the Public Records Act. Yours wouldn’t be the first, and it certainly won’t be the last. We’ve done quite a bit of work in the public sector and understand the subtleties involved.
If you’d like more information, please give us a call. We’re happy to go over your options with you so that you can make an informed choice. We’re also available for any critical Star Wars-related questions you have, but we suspect we’ll take far fewer calls on that subject.