Can Open Government Be Too Open?

A new rash of public records requests in Washington state have the public and members of the open data movement divided on just how open government should be.

by / February 9, 2015
The Washington State Department of Agriculture said the recent public records request asking for all emails to be published online, except for those containing personal information that might require redaction, would take 132 years to complete. Google Street View

The mass records requester from Washington state has struck again.

Computer programmer Tim Clemans is making new headlines in the state after asking every state agency to publicly release all emails that don’t require redaction. Clemans first gained attention in November when he anonymously made mass video requests of most police and sheriffs' departments in the state, causing agencies and regulators to rethink the state’s aggressive transparency rules. Now, he’s once again pushing government on the bounds of transparency -- and he's getting the same cold reception as he did before.

“I'm so sick of reading about this guy abusing the public records act,” Billbo77 commented on a local news story about Clemans’ latest project.

“Total control idiot wasting our state's money. How 'bout you move to another state!” mtnviewgal wrote.

“Another dumbass wanting to waste taxpayers money,” dkgiovenco wrote.

But Clemans said he’s taking a big picture approach – it’s not about him and his requests, it's about challenging how government looks at transparency.

On Friday, Feb. 6, Clemans made a public disclosure request to 60 state agencies, asking for all emails to be published online, except for those containing personal information that might require redaction. Similar to his police video request, some agencies are reporting that they don’t have the resources to fulfill what he’s asking for. The Washington State Department of Agriculture said his request would take 132 years to complete.

Clemans is less concerned with his own request and more occupied with bringing about change, he said. When asked about the negative comments toward him online, he pointed to a supportive commenter who understood what he was doing.

“Folks are missing the point,” JeffNW wrote. “It's our government, we should know exactly what they are doing and saying, they are working on our behalf, representing us."

Clemans stipulated in his request that the records be transferred to him via file transfer protocol (FTP) at no charge. “If you do not provide the records via the internet at no charge then I request to inspect/photograph the records,” Clemans wrote in his request. “If I have to inspect the records to avoid fees then I will request all major classes of records.”

Again responding to criticism, Clemans wrote in an email to Government Technology, “Most of the complaints are by people who forget that every second, computers are deciding which emails are spam. There's no reason we can't have computers find the emails not requiring redaction/withholding.”

Clemans’ police video request last year led to the cancellation of at least two police body camera programs and helped reshape the Seattle Police Department’s video collection and retention policies, as the department took on Clemans as an adviser. The eventual impact of these requests is yet to be seen, but Smart Chicago Collaborative Executive Director Dan O’Neil said that what Clemans is doing is neither productive -- nor terribly harmful.

“You know, it almost becomes performance art the way he was quoted,” O’Neil said. “It’s kind of funny the way he uses the language of the open data movement, the whole ‘transparency!’ and ‘the default should be public!’ We’ve got a lot of other battles to fight, I think.”

Making government emails available to the public has its precedents. The city of Gainesville, Fla., for instance, publishes its mayor’s emails online as a matter of routine; and Charlotte, N.C., began making its mayor’s emails public in 2008, though residents are required to visit a computer terminal in City Hall to view them. But publishing all workers’ emails online isn’t that helpful, O’Neil said, adding that it even goes beyond the bounds of propriety.

“I do believe that government officials and human beings who work for a living have a right to private deliberation and consideration, and to be able to speak freely and certainly on substantive matters of particular heightened public interest on particular topics," he said, adding that it’s well established that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows for and requires handing over emails that are under a specific request.

“I think it’s a completely settled matter," O'Neil continued. "I think if he has a particular desire to know about a particular topic, he should form a FOIA request that is germane to his particular topic and that should be fulfilled by the government.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.