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Reducing Paper, Increasing Transparency: Public Records in Ohio

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While "public records management" might conjure images of dusty filing cabinets and stacks of yellowing paper, many state and local governments are taking steps to modernize public information in a way that makes it more easily accessible and engaging than ever before.

Take a look, for example, at Ohio. One recent proposal there, the DataOhio Initiative, aims to have all local governments post information online in standardized, open formats.

The Initiative, which encompasses several different pieces of potential legislation, includes a program to allow local governments to apply for $10,000 grants to help implement programs to post more information online. These grants -- though arguably just a drop in the bucket in cases where large amounts of records are involved -- could help incentivize the digitization of public information at the local level, a crucial step for broader adoption of online platforms for records access. (It’s worth noting that the digitization would not depend on the continuance of state funding, helping to avoid potential debacles like what happened recently in California.)

An editorial by The Columbus Dispatch outlines some of the many reasons moving to electronic records is a smart step: allowing "oranges to oranges" comparisons of local governments within Ohio would benefit policymakers and the public alike. For policymakers, access to this information means they can be better informed when making decisions about their community, not to mention being able to compare data from other municipalities to their own. For the public, access to this information means they have insight into how their government is operating, empowering them to hold their elected officials accountable. Part of the Initiative was included in Ohio's budget bill, which was signed and enacted in early July. The final bill requires Ohio’s Department of Administrative Services director to produce a report by May 31, 2014, to propose uniform standards for public offices to follow when publishing records online, which could set a good precedence for the other programs the DataOhio Initiative seeks to see enacted in the state.

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Electronic records initiatives don’t just come down to local governments from the state: some cities are driving innovation up. A paperwork reduction effort in Stow, Ohio would mandate electronic records for city council documents such as legislation and memorandums. Moving to electronic records is poised to help the city as it develops an online transparency portal, which is slated to include legislation, meeting minutes, the city charter, and more. This is one more example of how digital formats can be helpful: rather than scanning in paper records or manually transcribing them to post on the online transparency portal, the documents can already be in formats that are either published immediately or at least made instantly available for upload for quick and easy sharing with the world.  For the government clerks who handle requests, electronic access can lead to dealing with fewer and clearer requests, since having access to online records helps the public see what is already available and better understand what information they might still need to ask for.

Although there are concerns that new electronic systems will carry extra charges for up-front staff training and initial system integration, the move to electronic records can come with clear cost savings, too. Stow spent nearly $43,000 in 2012 on printing costs alone -- a number that could be significantly reduced if government workers and the public can find what they need online in a format that's downloadable and shareable.

The rationale for improving public records management is strong, but many governments are still struggling to make the final case (or find the resolve) to institute these changes. Important questions remain, like how can governments best manage the massive volume of records created every day? How should governments archive new records, like the electronic information being created by the use of technology like email and social media?

It's encouraging to see the steps some state and local governments are already taking toward modern public records management. We'll continue to keep an eye on the topic of public records broadly, especially as it relates to making more public information available online. You can see what resources we've gathered in this editable research document and feel free to add any additional information that might be helpful.

Photo by Flickr user I'm George