Utah lawmakers are taking a proactive approach to government transparency by opening their email accounts to the public.
The state will launch an online repository in January that will house legislator correspondence on the Utah Legislature’s website, giving citizens a closer look at the daily communications of their elected officials. The increased access was authorized by legislation signed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in March.
State legislators are not compelled to publicly share the entirety of their inboxes, however. SB 94 states that lawmakers may transfer email they have sent or received to the repository. In addition, under certain circumstances they may also remove an email erroneously made public.
According to the Standard-Examiner, the bill is an about face from the state Legislature’s stance on open email. A couple of years ago, a bill was proposed that would have exempted certain forms of legislator communication from the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), the state’s public records law. That legislation never got off the ground, however.
Under SB 94, GRAMA still applies, so if a legislator elects not to use the repository, constituents can still in theory get access to a legislator’s email communications, just not through the portal.
Alisha Green, policy associate with the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency watchdog, called SB 94 “a great step forward,” but admitted that there’s still potential hurdles that may need to be overcome. For example, while the bill mandates that the repository be “searchable by sender, receiver, and subject,” it doesn’t mention the format by which the emails will be made public.
“Allowing download of these emails, so people could archive and use them, allowing them to be shared in open formats would help,” Green said, in regard to other steps the Utah Legislature could take to be more transparent. “As long as the information isn’t locked up in a proprietary system or have other restrictions. This remains to be seen. The [repository] isn’t live yet. We don’t have any further concerns at this time.”
An email sent SB 94’s chief sponsor, Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, for comment on how the data would be presented to the public and the voluntary nature of the bill was not immediately returned.
The Utah Legislature joins a small but growing list of governments expanding access to email and other forms of electronic communication.
Orange County, Fla., implemented a data retention and tracking system earlier this year designed to capture text messages and digital communications from the mobile devices of elected officials’ and county employees. Called MobileGuard -- formerly known as TextGuard -- the system automatically archives mobile communications and places them into an archive. That archive is available to everyone through a public records request.
For the past several years, Jacksonville, Fla., has provided access to emails received by the city’s mayor and staff on Jacksonville’s official website. Using a public login and password, users can view and print various emails.
Texas enacted two separate laws that provide further transparency to state and local level officials’ communications. SB 1297 went into effect on Sept. 1 and permits government officials to communicate using an online message board between official meetings. According to the San Antonio Express-News, the forum would be run by a government body and be accessible to the public. Content of the board would be retained for six years.
A second Texas bill — SB 1368 — was also passed this year that defines all electronic communications by public officials about government business as public information, regardless of whether the account used to send those messages is personal or governmental.
In addition to the public benefit of increased transparency, Green felt governments are embracing advances that reduce the number of public records requests they have to fulfill.
“It’s essentially a cost savings for them, honestly,” she said. “They’re handling fewer public records requests for this kind of information by proactively sharing it online.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.