Public information requests are a huge pain: The request process is different at different levels of government, and request forms often must be deposited in person to specific government locations between specific hours. Worse, people often make requests to the wrong agency. NextRequest wants to solve this problem by putting the whole information request process online, saving citizens time and governments money. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just request and receive public information without having to get up from your desk?
There are 90,000 agencies across city governments, port authorities, and universities, but asking these entities for publicly available information is a very analog process, according to NextRequest cofounder Tamara Manik-Perlman: You submit a paper form request and it goes into a labeled manila envelope. The most advanced tech in the workflow is usually an Excel spreadsheet used to manually track requests. Even cities committed to modernizing the process spend money opening data portals—and sometimes don’t know what to do from there, claims Manik-Perlman. NextRequest is a software-as-a-service solution that hosts publicly available documents on its own cloud servers, so government offices don’t have to worry about data storage.
To make an online request, citizens can go on a NextRequest-equipped government site and type out the kind of document they’re looking for, just like any search on the Internet. NextRequest looks for keywords in your search to ensure that your request is going to the right department, and checks to see if someone has previously requested the same file. If they have, NextRequest redirects you to download that file from an archive—thus freeing government employees from hunting down the same information twice.
A 2014 NYC Transparency Working Group report estimated that each public information request cost taxpayers a "low average" of $400, which demonstrates how simply deflecting repeat requests before an employee spends time on them can save a municipality money. The Port of Seattle began using NextRequest in January and saw 200 public information requests—50 of which were for the same file. Thanks to NextRequest, those repeat requests were redirected to the already-uploaded file.
NextRequest also tracks the status of each request, giving overseers a window into the corresponding office’s workload and workflow efficiency—how many requests are open, how many are closed, and how this month’s performance ranks against previous benchmarks. NextRequest visualizes these analytics to point out efficiency highs and lows, which can help agencies identify efficiency obstacles and share performance breakthroughs across their various departments, says Manik-Perlman. On the whole, improving agency efficiency conceivably speeds up the process time between request and delivery.
"In the agencies we’ve talked to, the most sophisticated thing they have going on is a spreadsheet. But that’s usually just tracking what requests they have to deal with. It’s not typically looking at how many days it’s taking to respond to requests in specific departments," says Manik-Perlman.
"But there’s all kinds of data we can collect, and it lets [our client agencies] understand the mechanics of requests, which is definitely not something any agency can track with current methods," Manik-Perlman claims.
The idea of e-government has been around since the dawn of the web, says Manik-Perlman, but in the age of online banking and one-hour Amazon delivery, consumer expectations have changed—and what they see in the private sector is what they also want when they deal with government services. Fortunately, the rise in cloud storage, SaaS solutions, and APIs haven’t been lost on the government, says Manik-Perlman: Tools like NextRequest are seen as solutions to a culture shift in the last few years toward government transparency and citizen access. President Obama has been digitally modernizing the government at the federal level with the U.S. Digital Service, his startup initiative (filled with luminaries lured out of Silicon Valley) to fix government monoliths like Veterans Affairs. Local and state governments are modernizing at their own irregular paces, but giving citizens a more transparent peek into workflows—such as publicly displaying an agency’s volume of open information requests like NextRequest does—might prompt more empathy for beleaguered government employees.
"I talk to journalists, and they’ve said ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know how many requests were going in,’" says Manik-Perlman. "When people see what’s going on, they have a window into what’s happening. It allows people to see into government and see people in the government helping them."
NextRequest already handles public service requests for the Port of Seattle, the Port of Tacoma, and the city of West Sacramento, California. The company just announced that they’re handling services for the cities of Albuquerque, New Mexico and Providence, Rhode Island.
However, inertia and old digital solutions that have been cobbled into a workflow are obstacles standing in the way of widespread NextRequest adoption, Manik-Perlman says. It’s a challenge to get agencies excited about NextRequest if the last digital solution they tried took their team three months of training to learn how to use properly. NextRequest training is included in NextRequest’s annual subscription—but the agencies who have signed up for NextRequest have often figured out how to get their NextRequest-equipped system up and running on their own, says Manik-Perlman.
Originally, NextRequest was born from a Code For America team that built RecordTrac, an online portal that fielded public information requests for the city of Oakland. The team won entry into San Francisco-based Matter, where the incubator’s staff helped the NextRequest team figure out their business model and refine their tech. By employing a fee structure based on volume of requests, NextRequest aims to scale their cost to differently sized agencies.