The future of public access: publish all e-mails

In our state, citizens can request any public record from any level of government and inspect, copy, and disseminate the information they receive. Under our voter-approved Open Public Records Act, requests must be responded to promptly. If officials believe a record is exempt from disclosure (and they choose to use the exemption), they must give you the statute that allows them to withhold the record and tell you what the withheld record contains.

Open records laws protect your right to know what your government is doing on your behalf and with your tax dollars, but they haven’t kept up with the times. The internet has made it easier to move large amounts of data than ever before and changed citizens’ expectations about what information should be available to them quickly and easily.

Many governments are clinging to the old way of doing things: agencies receive a records request, relevant documents are searched for and compiled, and then are reviewed page-by-page for exemptions and legal issues. It’s time-consuming for public employees, and response times aren’t exactly swift.

But in one Florida city, we can glimpse the future of open government across the nation. The City of Gainesville is taking an important first step toward open government through open data by publishing all e-mails to and from its seven elected city commissioners.

Anyone can read through the commissioners’ e-mails and search within them. The system is really pretty simple. Every e-mail that has been read by a commissioner is automatically published on the city’s searchable site that evening. If a particular e-mail contains confidential information that is exempt from disclosure, the commissioner simply places it in a do-not-publish folder for further review.

Publishing these e-mails not only increases public access and accountability, but it will cut down on public records requests and the staff time they require. In our recent interview with Waldo Jaquith of the U.S. Open Data Institute, he put it this way: “The goal is that by publishing data preemptively, you’ll greatly reduce the amount of staff time devoted to fulfilling requests. Right now, these requests are one-to-one. One person makes one request, and they’re the only people who will see the information they receive. Open data is one-to-many, one government publishes something and as many people as want it can have it.”

I know well the objections many in government will have to the idea of open access. As state Attorney General, one of my roles was to help limit the state’s exposure to lawsuits. The idea of preemptively publishing e-mails will worry many officials who will view it as all risk, no reward. Any implementation of an open data system in Washington will require some smart thinking about what types of records will require rigorous review.

Open government is moving toward open data systems, though, with Gainesville and other smaller governments leading the way. In the future, not only will elected officials’ data be public, but all applicable government records. Washington was a leader in the ‘70s with our Open Public Records Act. Now we have an opportunity to be a state government leader on open public data.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.