A review of the open government practices of Governor Tony Evers, Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, and various state agencies by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) found a disturbing departure from best practices as defined in two executive orders issued by former Governor Scott Walker. Without an immediate course reversal, Governor Evers threatens to turn Wisconsin’s proud legacy of transparency in state government into a bureaucratic black box.
The study, authored by WILL’s Libby Sobic and CJ Szafir, can be found here.
The Background: In 2016 and 2017, Governor Scott Walker issued executive orders that directed his administration to implement best practices to bring new transparency and responsiveness to state government. The EO’s directed executive offices and state agencies to respond to records requests in ten business days, keep and maintain an organized tracking system, and develop a dashboard website for the public to monitor how the administration is complying with records requests and best practices.
WILL Research: WILL’s goal was to see whether, and to what extent, the Evers administration is following the best practices outlined by Governor Walker. To test this, WILL submitted identical open records requests to 11 offices and state agencies for tracking documents and records practices. By the end of August, WILL received responses on 9 of the 11 requests and reviewed over 4,000 records. Some of the results:
- Office of Governor Evers: The system to track records requests in Governor Evers’ office is disorganized and dysfunctional.
- There are scores of missing data making it impossible to know whether the Governor’s office is complying with open government best practices.
- 1 out of 3 of all open records requests are either unfulfilled or not recorded properly.
- Office of Lieutenant Governor Barnes: The Lt. Governor’s office is not doing much better and their response time to records requests far exceeds the 10 day goal.
- Despite only receiving 13 requests, it takes his office on average 22 business days to respond to a request.
- Walker’s open government website is no longer active: Since taking office, the open government dashboard the Walker administration created to provide the public with metrics and data on transparency practices has gone dark. The public is no longer easily able to determine how the Evers administration is practicing government transparency.
- Some state agencies are maintaining the Walker-era best practices: Five state agencies (DATCP, DNR, DHS, DOA and DOR) responded to WILL’s request for tracking documents.
- All five agencies are continuing to respond, on average, within ten business days.
- But, despite given over 40 business days to respond, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Children & Families (DCF) have not complied with the request.
- The results are mixed for the non-cabinet agencies (DPI and DOJ).
- DPI’s response time has slipped from, on average, within 12.5 business days, to responding for the last six months within 15 business days.
- DOJ’s Office of Open Government, founded by Schimel, continues to provide unprecedented amount of transparency, including publishing a monthly metric of the department’s open records request responses.
The Quote: CJ Szafir Executive Vice President said, “Unlike his predecessor Governor Scott Walker, Governor Tony Evers is clearly not prioritizing government transparency. This is dangerous because open government is not just an ideal but a critical tool for the public in a democracy to hold their elected officials and public employees accountable. Evers threatens to turn Wisconsin’s proud legacy of transparency in state government into a bureaucratic black box.”
WILL Solutions: In a short time, the Evers administration has done great damage to Wisconsin’s proud tradition of open government and transparency. To correct this, WILL recommends:
- Governor Evers should quickly reissue the Walker-era executive orders that define the best practices for open government and revitalize the open government dashboard website. There is no reason this should not be a bi-partisan tradition.
- If the Evers administration does not act, the state legislature should consider oversight hearings to determine why the Evers administration is taking Wisconsin backwards on transparency.
- The state legislature should require all government offices and agencies to comply with open records laws and create clear and up-to-date tracking systems.
- The state legislature should ensure full transparency by instituting low records request fee policies to ensure that all citizens have access to the inner workings of government.
Legislative Republicans were pilloried, correctly, for attempting an end run around the state’s Open Meetings laws during the 2013–15 budget process around, of all times, Independence Day. Some Republicans have not really been open-government enthusiasts when the Open Records Law helped expose signers of the Walker recall petitions, including future political candidates and people in the news media.
Turns out Democrats don’t like open government either, or at least their governor doesn’t.