Wisconsin Gov Tony Evers' administration is “disorganized" and "dysfunctional” and doesn't prioritize government transparency, a new report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) says in a new report.
“Without an immediate course reversal, Governor Evers threatens to turn Wisconsin’s proud legacy of transparency in state government into a bureaucratic black box,” Will says in “Lurching Towards Darkness: An analysis of how the Evers administration handles open records requests,” released Monday.
Authored by Libby Sobic and CJ Szafir, the analysis found that current practices represent “a disturbing departure from best practices as defined in two executive orders issued by former Governor Scott Walker.”
State government, which spends $8.5 billion of state taxpayer money annually, employs more than 71,800 full-time employees, and a full-time legislature.
Wisconsin was one of the first states to enact an open records law in 1917, which has been amended several times over the last few decades.
In 2016 and 2017, Walker issued executive orders directing best practices be implemented throughout state government to increase transparency and responsiveness to constituents. Executive offices and state agencies were directed to respond to records requests within ten business days, keep and maintain an organized tracking system, and develop a website for the public to monitor how the administration complies with records requests and best practices.
The WILL policy brief evaluated to what extent the Evers administration followed the best practices. It submitted identical open records requests to 11 offices and state agencies for tracking documents and records practices, and received responses from nine out of 11.
Those that responded include the Department of Administration (DOA), Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), the Office of Governor Evers, Department of Health Services (DHS), Department of Justice (DOJ), the Office of Lieutenant Governor Barnes, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and Department of Revenue (DOR).
The agency response times, with the exception of DOR and DNR, WILL notes, have improved since a similar analysis was conducted in 2017 by the Wisconsin State Journal.
WILL received no response from the Department of Transportation and Department of Children and Families, despite being given more than 40 days to respond.
Five state agencies are maintaining the Walker-era best practices, WILL notes: DATCP, DNR, DHS, DOA and DOR.
DOJ’s Office of Open Government “continues to provide unprecedented amount of transparency, including publishing a monthly metric of the department’s open records request responses,” the report states.
By contrast, the Office of the Governor is “disorganized and dysfunctional” when tasked with tracking records, the report states. Scores of missing data make it impossible to determine compliance with open government best practices, with one out of every three open records requests either unfulfilled or recorded improperly, according to the analysis.
“Unlike his predecessor Governor Scott Walker, Governor Tony Evers is clearly not prioritizing government transparency,” CJ Szafir, WILL’s executive vice president, said. “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.”
Evers’ office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Since Evers took office, the open government website created by the Walker administration to provide the public with metrics and data on transparency practices is no longer active. This makes it difficult for the public to determine the level of transparency of state government, the report states.
“Given the contempt for openness displayed by some members of the Legislature, it is virtually important that the executive branch be a paragon of transparency,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said in a statement. “Gov. Evers should continue to maintain this web portal and affirm his commitment to the executive orders issued by his predecessor. And he should always strive to improve state agency performance in this vital area.”