It’s Sunshine Week – is state gov as open as it can be?

Journalists and open government advocates are marking Sunshine Week, celebrating government transparency and openness and pushing for better access to records and decision-making.

Our state is fortunate to have a strong, voter-passed Public Records Act. The preamble to that law boldly states that the people, by delegating to government certain decisions, do not give officials the right to decide what the public should and shouldn’t know.

This week’s big story driving open gov questions
The big story in Olympia this week is the federal investigation related to state Auditor Troy Kelley. The Justice Department subpoenaed records at the Auditor’s Office and agents obtained a warrant to search Kelley’s home.

Journalists immediately requested copies of the subpoena, but the office waited a few days to release it. Open government advocates told reporters they could think of no exemption in state law that would allow the office to withhold the subpoena, and some wondered if a lawsuit would be necessary to force disclosure.

Thankfully, the Auditor’s Office chose to release the subpoena yesterday afternoon – it’s focused on an office employee who is also a former business associate of Kelley. Give the important work the office does holding others accountable, releasing it was the right call. The public deserves to know this info.

How can state gov do better?
While Washington’s open records law is strong, there are many improvements the state can make to improve citizens’ access. Doing so may require some big shifts in thinking, though.

The biggest open government problem in the state today isn’t access but timelines. Oftentimes records requests are fulfilled slowly, depending on current workload. State law requires an agency to respond to a request within five business days and give a reasonable estimate of how long it will take to fulfill.

There’s no standard, though, for what is “reasonable” under the law, and the only way to test it is to file a lawsuit, which raises costs for everyone involved. And under the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” theory, requestors find they have to ask agencies for status updates frequently to get their requests fulfilled in a timely manner.

Move to embrace the future
These delays are the natural result of how government records requests are handled here and almost everywhere else. It starts from the presumption that every document must be read by a public employee, who ponders over whether anything in the document could somehow be related to a current or imminent lawsuit. In the end, most requests are released in full, while other require redactions and approval from attorneys.

The state can move to embrace new ways of operating, but that will start with changing the mindset of fulfilling records requests. One city in Florida has shown the way: Gainesville is publishing all its e-mails.

That is the future. Instead of reactively culling through records and giving them to requestors, city e-mails are published weekly, and any citizen can search through them. If an employee is dealing with a topic that may be exempt from disclosure, they can simply flag that e-mail for further review and it will not be published along with the others that week.

It will be a big lift to move state agencies in that direction, but open data is the future of government transparency. Open data not only will improve accountability and openness, it will free public employees up to do more useful work. That would be a win for Sunshine and agency budgets.
-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.