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Public Records Dance

Still trying to turn government inside out.

by / January 29, 2007

The modern understanding of open government at the state level was defined, in large measure, with the passage of Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law in 1967. The law's core tenets spread in the decade that followed through citizen initiatives in what are now known as "open records states."

Since then, state legislatures regularly revisited the definition of public record and adjusted the threshold for public access to information. The near constant changes -- combined with a bureaucratic preference for the opaque -- have created confusion at both ends of public records requests.

To help clear things up, two governors -- Florida's Charlie Crist on his way in and Ohio's Bob Taft on his way out -- took measures to better train public employees on the laws' requirements, increase compliance and strengthen penalties when public entities fail to disclose in ways that are both timely and full.

For his part, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna is asking the Legislature to create a permanent check on the proliferation of exemptions to the Public Disclosure Act, which have grown from only 10 three decades ago to approximately 300 today, and made it unwieldy to administer. As described in the bill, a new exemptions accountability committee -- which does not include, curiously enough, a member of the public -- would review exemptions and make recommendations for the repeal or amendment of those that, in its view, unnecessarily impede public access.

While 300 is a big number, not all exemptions were created equal. Recent prohibitions on the release of credit card numbers and the results of information security audits are clearly in the public interest -- without them, the state risked creating a feeding frenzy for identity thieves and hackers.

At the local level, where title deeds, tax records and court documents are peppered with date of birth, Social Security numbers and banking information, a growing number of county governments are confronting the opposite side of the coin -- that is, disclosing personally identifiable information that is specifically exempted under their respective state laws. The most instructive case may be that of the comptroller's office in Orange County, Fla., which found that 2.6 percent of the public records on its Web site improperly contained personally identifiable information. Not an alarming number, until you consider that it took 18 months of manual and automated reviews, and about one dollar per page to find the three-quarters of a million suspect pages.

Four decades later, it appears that -- for all their trying -- governments do not have 40 years of experience as stewards of the public records as much as they have one year of experience 40 times. They remain vexed by an apparent misunderstanding or misapplication of the law coupled with a growing recognition that redaction technologies need human scrutiny and vice versa.

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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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