NLPES Question of the Month

March/April:

WHAT ARE YOUR AGENCY´S PRACTICES FOR RELEASING PROGRAM EVALUATION REPORTS TO THE PRESS AND PUBLIC?  (Do you have press releases or hold press conferences?  To what extent do you release reports at legislative hearings?  How are your reports released to the public?  What have been the important lessons you've learned from your past experiences with releasing reports?)

Keenan Konopaski, Washington 

We have not traditionally issued press releases or had press conferences when our office releases reports. By law, our reports are not released to the public until after they have been presented to our legislative audit committee. In practice, this means all of our audit reports are presented at a meeting of our legislative audit committee. The reports themselves can be accessed by anyone attending the meeting or visiting our web site at the conclusion of the meeting.

A lesson learned is that we make reports before the meeting only for our committee members and the auditees. These individuals are notified that these are considered confidential copies, which cannot under state law be shared with others in advance of the public meeting. 

Hal Greer, Virginia Virginia's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission does not prepare press releases or hold press conferences.  We publicly brief most reports to our Commission which is comprised of 14 legislators.  The press is invited to the Commission meetings at which the reports are briefed, and the reports are then made available to the press as soon as they are briefed.  A limited number of hard copy reports are made available, and the report and briefing slides are posted on the JLARC website as soon as they are briefed to the Commission.  Be prepared for reports to be leaked to the press that are provided to various stakeholders prior to their release to the public and the press.

Phil Durgin, Pennsylvania 

We release all our reports at public meetings of our Committee.  We notify the press in advance, and we always have representatives from the audited agency at the meeting to answer questions our members may have.  Of course we’re there too to answer questions they may have for us.

We do not hold press conferences, but we do issue a "press packet" for each report, which consists of a one-page summary of the report and a copy of the presentation our staff member makes at the Committee meeting.  The press packet is available to reports who come to the meeting, and we distribute them to Capitol press offices after the meeting is over.

We've found that issuing reports at a public Committee meeting, although they can be difficult to set up, helps give weight and exposure to the report.  We do not give advance copies of the report to the press, although occasionally reports are leaked to the press from sources outside our office (I hope!).

Perry Simpson, South Carolina 

We notify the press by e-mail the day before we release a report and tell them it is available on our website.  We generally do not hold press conferences.  We will talk with the press about a report and provide background and an occasional quote.  We also refer them to legislators who requested the audit if they want further quotes/reaction.  Our reports are released on our website and are available to the public in hard copy at no charge.  We use to embargo reports to the press but have stopped that practice. 

Ethel Detch, Tennessee 

We regularly have press releases, but not press conferences, although we once held a press briefing to explain some methodology that we thought might be misinterpreted. 

We usually try to release reports well before any hearings, unless we just don't have time in which case we do it simultaneously.  (We don't have an audit committee that we report to on a regular basis, though.)  As for important lessons, make sure the report itself is concise and clearly expresses the main point--it will speak for itself.  Creating "talking points" is also helpful to prepare for calls from reporters.  Always make sure the other key stakeholders, such as committee chairs or agency heads, have a copy in advance of the release in case the press calls them too.  Our office has recently hired a Communications Officer who has also helped us "practice" before going on TV. 

Beth Ashcroft, Maine

Our authorizing statute requires that our reports be released to our Government Oversight Committee at one of its meetings (which are public) thus assuring that the report is released to the Committee and the public simultaneously.  Following are the general procedures we have been using in issuing reports: 

  1. The release of a report is included as an agenda item for the Committee meeting in which it is to be released.

  2. The agenda is emailed a couple weeks in advance to the meeting to members of other legislative committees that may have an interest, other non-partisan legislative offices, State agency Commissioners and Directors as well as the agency liaisons to our office, and an “Interested Parties” list that includes the media representatives that typically cover news at the State House.

  3. A “Confidential Draft” of the report is sent to Committee members a little less than a week before the meeting.

  4. A Power Point presentation on the report is developed.

  5. At the Committee meeting, OPEGA provides Committee members with the final printed and bound version of the report and orally delivers the Power Point presentation.  The Committee then asks questions of OPEGA and relevant administration representatives that are present.  The audio of the Committee meeting is broadcast over the Internet and hard copies of the report are available for the public at the meeting.

  6. Just before the Committee meeting begins, the final hard copy version of the report and the Power Point presentation are posted to OPEGA’s website so that those listening to the meeting over the Internet can follow along with the Power Point slides.

  7. After the meeting, OPEGA sends hard copies of the final report to members of the relevant legislative Joint Standing Committees of jurisdiction and the non-partisan legislative staff that staff those committees.  OPEGA also sends an email (and typically a memo) to all legislators advising them of the release of the report and telling them where they can obtain a copy.

  8. Copies of the report are sent to the Maine State Library for distribution to libraries around the State including the Law and Legislative Reference Library located in the State House.

  9. Our Committee normally schedules a “public comment period” for their next Committee meeting where they will receive comments from the public on the report before they take their vote on whether or not to endorse the report.

  10. The Public Comment Period is advertised (like other legislative public hearings) in the major newspapers for two weekends prior to the Committee meeting.  The advertisement encourages folks to send in written comments and advises them that there is an opportunity to present oral comments at the Committee meeting.

  11. The Committee holds the Public Comment Period at its next meeting where the OPEGA Director presents the Committee with any written comments that have been received and persons present are invited to speak to the Committee.  Again, the audio from the Committee meeting is broadcast on the Internet.

  12. The Committee then has further discussion amongst itself as necessary on the report and ultimately votes on whether or not to endorse it.

OPEGA has not generally issued press release on the release of a report (other than our first one and our Annual Report) but we are thinking about making this part of our routine procedure because some of the Government Oversight Committee members feel there has not been enough press coverage on our work.  We do not do press conferences and I do not expect that we will. 

As for lessons learned –

  • If you issue a press release, make sure that you are in the office or otherwise readily available to take questions from reporters for the remainder of the day.
  • The radio news folks are looking for sound bites and you will come off looking a lot better if you can articulate your message and respond to their questions briefly and clearly.
  • It can be difficult for radio news folks to get a good interview (and sound bites) from you when you are using a cell phone. 

Kim Hildebrand, Arizona 

We do not have press releases or hold press conferences.  Also, we do not “release” reports at legislative hearings but they are available if anyone wants a copy.  Typically, whoever wants a report would already have one by the time the legislative hearing is held.

We distribute our reports over a 2-day time period.  The first day the report has limited distribution and is only issued to the agency, chairs of our committee (Joint Legislative Audit Committee) and the Governor.  We do this so that the agency and our oversight committee are sure to have the report prior to receiving any potential media calls regarding the report and its contents. 

The second day, the report is released to whoever else has requested a copy of the report including the media, legislative analysts and members, libraries, and other interested parties.  Some parties receive only an e-mail notification that the report has been issued and is available on our website (the report is posted on our website on the 2nd day), some parties only receive our highlight document (which essentially summarizes the highlights of our report), and some parties receive hard copies of the entire report. 

Lynn Coulam, Texas State Auditor’s Office 

We rarely issue press releases and we never hold press conferences. 

We do not release reports at legislative hearings.  Our reports are released to the public by posting them on our website.  We send email notifications to a list serve for the media and a list serve for others who have asked to receive report release notifications. 

Our most valuable experience is to always stay consistent and on procedure no-matter-what when releasing reports. 

Monica Bowers, Colorado

The Colorado Office of the State Auditor releases audit reports to the public through our Legislative Audit Committee (LAC) hearings.  Our LAC holds regular meetings about 10 months out of each year during which we present our audit reports.  All audit reports produced by our office become public only upon release by the LAC.  Colorado statutes require us to keep our reports confidential until they are publicly released by the LAC.  Specifically, Colorado Revised Statutes (Section 2-3-103(2)) states:  “All reports shall be open to public inspection except for that portion of any report containing recommendations, comments, and any narrative statements which is released only upon the approval of a majority vote of the committee.” 

The dates for the LAC hearings are listed on our website and the agenda for each upcoming meeting is available on the site about a week before the hearing.  Members of the media often attend the hearings, which are also broadcast live over the Internet.  On the day of each LAC hearing, all released reports are posted on our website and hard copies may be obtained from our office.

Our office does not hold press conferences or issue press releases about our audits and the State Auditor and Deputy State Auditors address all media inquiries.

In terms of lessons learned, we have tightened up our pre-hearing distribution of draft audit reports to the audited agency.  Over the past several years we had several instances in which information from an audit report was released to the press before the audit was made public.  As a result, we have further restricted the distribution of the draft report.  We now ask the agency to identify only those staff who have a direct interest in the audit and distribute draft copies only to those individuals.  Draft reports are always marked as confidential but, in some cases, we individually watermark each draft with a number or name so if any copies of the draft are made, we will be able to trace them back to the original recipient.  We also request all agency staff who will receive a draft copy of the report to sign confidentiality statements.  These statements provide an acknowledgement of the agency's responsibility for keeping the report drafts confidential and caution staff about penalties for release (Colorado Revised Statutes, Section 2-3-103.7 states:  “Any state employee or other individual acting in an oversight role as a member of a committee, board, or commission who willfully and knowingly discloses the contents of any report prepared by or at the direction of the state auditor's office prior to the release of such report by a majority vote of the committee as provided in section 2-3-103 (2) is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars.”) 

Lisa Kieffer, Georgia 

In Georgia, we have a standard mailing list that includes the Governor's office, the leadership of the Senate and House, the press and agency personnel.  We do not hold press conferences and haven’t used press releases in the past, although there has been some discussion of this in recent years.  As for the public, our reports can be accessed on our web site, but we have not made other efforts to publicize the release. 

One lesson we learned recently was the importance of communicating with the press when they seek out one of our report.  Our position has historically been “the report speaks for itself.”  However, when reporters began reviewing workpapers and reporting in a more in-depth manner, it became apparent that it would have been useful for us to provide some context and explanation of what they were reviewing to facilitate a better understanding of the material. 

Mitzi Ferguson, Arkansas 

All our reports are released during the monthly meetings of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.  The reports are presented to the Committee via PowerPoint.  The press is notified of the Committee meetings and the agenda is posted on our website and the General Assembly website. 

Joel Alter, Minnesota 

Our office tries to release each program evaluation report at a legislative hearing—either a meeting of our Legislative Audit Commission or a hearing by a standing legislative committee that has jurisdiction in the topic area of the report.  At the release hearings, our staff typically do a 15-20 minute Powerpoint presentation, followed by legislative questions and comments by the affected agencies. 

Many years ago, our office experimented briefly with release of reports at press conferences.  Typically, the chair of our audit commission played a role in these press conferences, along with the audit staff.  But there were concerns that press conferences gave the appearance of grandstanding, and that the presence of one or two audit commission members potentially gave the press conferences a partisan flavor.  We decided it would be better to encourage discussion of our findings and recommendations in a legislative setting, preferably with members of both parties able to participate actively. 

Our reports are released to the public on our website one hour prior to the public hearing at which the report is released.  The website contains the full report and executive summary.  Hard copies of reports are available upon request, although we try to limit the number printed in an effort to hold down costs. 

We used to provide members of our audit commission and other key legislators with copies of our evaluation reports a day in advance of the public release.  However, due to frequent leaks of our reports to the press, our audit commission instituted a policy that no legislators will receive the report in advance.  Our staff orally brief key legislators prior to the release, but the only advance copies distributed outside our office are a few embargoed copies delivered to the affected agency a day before the release.