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Keepers of the Public Record II

Nothing like the disinfecting power of digital sunshine.

by / March 1, 2006
Our countdown of 10 principles for the stewardship of the public record last month asserted that digital stewardship is entirely consistent with long-codified values of government transparency.

That said, digital stewardship may remain more promise than practice, and there is much potentially controversial heavy lifting still to do:

5. A Digital Clean Sweep: A cable TV reality show forces packrats to sort the contents of their cluttered rooms into piles labeled: Keep, Sell or Toss. The simple technique of TLC's Clean Sweep has something to teach the public sector. Government has an uneven record when it comes to retaining records as required by the respective retention schedules. There is an equally serious problem that mirrors the first. Aided by cheap and robust storage technology and a risk-adverse bureaucratic culture, there is a tendency to save everything -- including tera- or peda-bytes of data that have outlived their operational usefulness and don't need to be retained by law.

4. Government Intelligence About Itself: The public sector also has been uneven in the secondary use of public records containing personally identifiable information. In most jurisdictions, secondary use is exception-based in their respective public records statutes. At the same time, the public sector has been slow to adopt what is unfortunately labeled "business intelligence." The simple and compelling idea is to interrogate the aggregated information the government holds about its own activities in order to monitor its own performance and contribute to data-driven planning and decisions.

3. Gotcha-Style Accountability: Technology now makes "100 percent auditing" possible. We can do it, but that begs old questions about whether we should. Is the public interest served by going after everything? Or is it better served by marshalling whatever resources we have to scrutinize those areas with the greatest potential for abuse? The former assumes the ghost of Boss Tweed is still influencing what we do, assuming that today's professional public service is no trustworthier than the Tammany Hall of old. Getting this one wrong has a chilling effect on public servants who act in good faith, who take seriously the direction to take risks, but could be excused for feeling at risk themselves.

2. SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley) -Style Accountability: Digital public records are key to performance, accountability and compliance. No fewer than 16 states have sustained accountability programs. Most recently in Washington state, a citizen initiative granted the authority to the state auditor to conduct performance audits -- something the office had previously been prohibited from doing. Add the growing adoption of an internal controls framework from the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO), which requires federal agencies to provide an assurance statement on the effectiveness of internal controls over financial reporting.

1. Secrets vs. Sunshine: According to the Information Security Oversight Office, there has been a 75 percent increase in the designation of classified records in the federal government -- from 9 million in 2001 to 16 million in 2004. In addition to making things secret, larger amounts of records are being removed from federal government Web sites and shielded from public view as "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only." The trade-off in the name of public trust is for states and localities to be more transparent with the rest of the public record -- even, and maybe especially, those documents about routine activities that may be embarrassing.

Where openness and transparency in government is concerned, the old conventional wisdom (erring on the side of release of public records) is better than the new (post-9/11) conventional wisdom.

After 9/11, we were told that as an open society our strength was our weakness. Five years on, it's time to re-exert the modest proposition that our strength is still our strength.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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