By Jim Mayer of California Forward
The Public Records Act is to government transparency what the rotary telephone was to telecommunications.
Many people are righteously concerned that the tension between the state and local governments over who should pay for responding to requests from the public for government documents might lead to some government officials believing they don’t have an obligation to make public what is public.
But it is more important for Californians to see this fight for what it is – over money – and then move to the more important deliberation on how to give us all a major upgrade in technology-based transparency.
The Public Records Act says that with some exceptions state and local agencies have to turn over public documents upon request. It is largely a tool for journalists, community activists and savvy vendors. The act was ground-breaking in terms of defining public rights as bureaucracies and their file cabinets began to swell in the last century. It is now a minimum standard that is embarrassing in the context of what is possible and expected.
How many Californians have ever filed – or had to comply – with a public records act? As a former journalist and former public official, I have done both. Requesting and complying are often times a game of hide and seek. Not sure what government has, requests often read like discovery motions. Frustrated with the time involved (and sometimes reluctant to part with “their” documents), bureaucrats often view requests as a public nuisance.
In a recent Bar Association session with Public Records Act experts and mostly government lawyers in Sacramento, the issues and questions centered on how to deal with pesky citizens asking for more than they needed and how much could be charged for copying documents. (Call in a copy service and send them the bill, was one expert answer. Only the actual cost of the copy machine, not the person hours involved, was another.)
Meanwhile, technology has completely redefined access to information. Search engines have replaced index card files. Open data files have replaced documents.
Do you want to know when the Giants score a run? There is an app for that. Do you want to know where your tax dollars went? Write a letter and wait 10 days for a response.
President Obama on his first day in office in 2009 launched an open data initiative that is as ground-breaking as the California Public Records Act and the federal Freedom of Information Act were in their days.
The executive order articulates well that all government agencies should be making all information available, unless there is a legal prohibition. The executive order declares that open data policy has three values: greater transparency, greater participation and greater collaboration.
The public still needs a clear and affirmative right to request information. In the digital age, however, government has an obligation to be as transparent as possible – not just so that we know what the government is doing, but so that citizens can be actively involved in governing.
Go to www.data.vancouver.ca. This website is not a window into city government. It is a two-way portal among the people as citizens and the people as government. You don’t have to file a formal request to know how much each city council members spent on travel; the data is on the website. You have an idea about how to increase voter turnout, add your thought or comment on someone else’s.
And if you don’t find what you want, and you submit a freedom of information request, that information is posted on the website for the entire world to see. After the 2011 Stanley Cup riot, the city was inundated with requests for information. Go on line and read the email exchange of emergency service officials – before the riot.
There are no copy machines between government computers and the internet.
Transparency is not a state mandate on local government. It is a public mandate of all government.
All elected bodies should pass a resolution – and post it on their websites – committing themselves to following the existing minimum standards.
And state and local leaders should collaboratively think through the best ideas and incentives for all local governments to stay at the cutting edge of technology-driven transparency.
The City of Vancouver, by the way, believes it is behind the curve on this issue – and its “corporate business plan” calls for additional significant improvement.