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Lessons in Transparency from Flint, Mich. (Industry Perspective)

The water crisis provides a lesson for public officials to ensure strict compliance controls are in place to protect their agency’s data and reputation.

State and local leaders have been stunned by the fiasco in Flint, Mich., where city officials switched the water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in order to save money. That hasty change caused older pipes to leach dangerous levels of lead that contaminated the local drinking water supply.

On Wednesday, April 20, it was announced that as many as four government employees, including the former supervisor of Flint’s water treatment plant, will face criminal charges for actions related to the water crisis.

After the problem was uncovered, state and local officials assured the city’s largely poor population that their water was still safe to drink. Many residents reported skin lesions, rashes, hair loss and other ailments, and many children showed elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Sadly, the Flint crisis highlights a lack of transparency at the highest levels of state and local government. Michigan is one of only two states where the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides a blanket exemption for the governor and Legislature. This means documents and records can be legally withheld from the public, except in rare cases.

In January 2016, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said he had just learned about an increase in Legionnaires’ disease linked to 10 deaths, possibly attributed to the tainted Flint River water supply. However, an earlier email from the head of the state department of environmental quality from March 2015 revealed a growing awareness of the Legionnaires’ outbreak nine months prior. Critics have charged the Snyder administration with covering up the Flint scandal.

Last November, the Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan an F rating, ranking it 50th among 50 states for accountability and transparency. Email trails from Flint have indicated a potential cover-up, prompting a federal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Fallout in Flint Points to Need for Comprehensive Archiving

The Flint case is a cautionary tale for budget-strapped governments that face tough financial decisions. The disaster also provides a valuable lesson for public officials to make sure they put strict compliance controls in place to protect their agency’s data and reputation.

Every state and local government organization must be prepared to respond to FOIA requests from citizens and outside groups, but many agencies fall short. Complex investigations like the one being launched in Flint require both modern policies that account for the way citizens and public officials communicate (hint: it isn’t just with email anymore), and technology that enables the enforcement of those policies.

Workers in both public and private organizations are always connected these days, and as the lines continue to blur between work and personal use, the ability to capture and view mobile and social communications becomes increasingly more important. For example, last August the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that a public employee’s work-related text messages on a private smartphone are public records. While Snyder has agreed to turn over his emails for the investigation, cases like the one in Washington indicate that email will only tell a piece of the full story.

To keep pace with the new requirements under FOIA and state sunshine laws, government officials should implement a unified platform that can align, search and review all forms of digital content. Such content includes not only emails, but websites, blog posts, social media feeds and instant messages as well. A comprehensive archiving platform enables information officers and legal teams to discover correlations and contexts across these mediums, showing there’s more to the story and ensuring better decisions as an outcome.

Obviously, shortsighted leaders in Flint made a terrible mistake, and residents will bear the brunt of negative health effects for generations to come. Public-sector officials everywhere should learn from the mistakes made in Flint, including not carefully managing public records to document inexcusable wrongdoing.

Dan Thompson is a subject-matter expert in electronic communications oversight and governance at Smarsh, where he leads a team of advisers and customer advocates.