Public officials are elected or appointed to do the people's business, but what happens to transparency when they do that business through private channels? There have been cases across the country revolving around public officials using private methods of communication -- like personal email accounts or cell phones -- to conduct public business. When citizens request to know more about business done by their representatives, these private communications have, at times, served as blocks to the public's right to access information. As some of these cases are being decided in courts, we've seen a wide variety of responses from state and local governments about how to handle this public records issue.
In Alaska, such a case made it all the way to that state's Supreme Court. A citizen questioned the practice of former Governor Sarah Palin using a personal email account to conduct public business. Alaska's Supreme Court decided that if the state's employees use personal email for public business, those records must be made available to the public.
At least one government body on the other side of the country reached a similar conclusion about the value of keeping public business in the public record. The Washington, D.C., council voted to require members and employees to conduct public business on their public accounts. This move came after an open government group sued the council for not sharing public business done on personal accounts. The Mayor has also directed government employees to stay away from using personal email accounts for official business.
Not all government bodies are moving toward requiring this kind of disclosure, unfortunately.