Clickability tracking pixel

Keepers of the Public Record I

Digital does not mean "different" where government's responsibility is concerned

by / February 3, 2006
Clay Jenkinson speaks for the dead people.

The humanities scholar impersonates historical figures -- Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and Theodore Roosevelt among others -- bringing their points of view to contemporary issues.

These days, he spends much time animating J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, among other lapses, came to understand only two days before detonation that neither he nor the nation possessed an ethical framework for the proper stewardship of the split atom.

Jenkinson worries we haven't made much progress in the intervening 60 years, even as we enter a second, more dangerous nuclear era.

We may be at one of those Oppenheimer moments where stewardship of the public record is concerned -- including, but not limited to, digital records. We, too, lack the ethical maturity for balancing the competing interests between public disclosure and personally identifiable information.

Redressing that shortcoming is beyond the scope of the back page of any magazine, but we can begin sketching out a framework for thinking about proper stewardship of the public record in its many forms.

Ten guiding principles for policy and practice in maintaining the public record as a public trust are:

10. Treating atoms and bits the same way: Form does not matter -- the nature of the record does. Sensitive records should be closely safeguarded; routine records should be kept loosely. Echoing the 1970s feminist manifesto that crept onto stadium reader boards to "raise boys and girls the same way," what applies for one form ought to be equal for all forms -- atoms or bits, paper or digital. This point is often lost in a rush to legislate special rules for electronic records, which seemingly demand more rules than their paper counterparts.

9. Proving identity: Government is the keeper of the unique, authoritative record to which all others refer. As such, the public record is the coin of the realm in identity proofing, making it irreplaceable in controlling immigration, fueling a real-time economy, and mitigating fraud and identity threat.

Governments hold fewer records than the private sector --but the public record is used to validate or refute all others. Clearly government must maintain its house. Bad actors in the private sector are properly dealt with as a matter of law enforcement --enforcement being the operative word.

8. Protecting a vital public asset: Information security is the thin red line that keeps all the promises made by government about public accountability and safeguarding personally identifiable information. Sound security helps ensure the integrity of government services, and the prevention of misusing information and other public assets for illegal purposes.

7. Preserving a few good silos: Convenience is important, but it is not an ultimate value. Seemingly innocuous online applications such as "change of address" forms that unite formerly discrete systems can quickly become problematic. Polling data shows that businesses and citizens like "privacy by obscurity." They don't want what the government's left hand knows about them to be known by the government's right hand.

The federal government's revolving door of policy reversals over the last three decades about joining disparate data systems underscores that good technical and political designs are sometimes at odds with one another.

6. Getting over the physical artifact: Archaic auditing and compliance practices that remain wedded to the assumption that paper is safer have added a curious final step to end-to-end electronic transactions -- pressing the "print" icon.

It's an odd way to mark the end of the first decade of Internet-based modernization of federal, state and local governments (voter-validated paper ballots are not necessarily a special case or exception here -- the value under such a scheme is not the paper, it is the voter validation).

Next month, the five remaining principles will address charges of black-box governing and the promise that digital stewardship is consistent with long-codified values of government transparency.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

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.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs