New Series: Legislatures and Legislating Access to Government-Held Information

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Governments gather, produce, combine, and disclose incredible amounts of information. These information flows follow paths carved out by legislatures, executive prerogatives, agency regulations, court decisions, customary behaviors, and the discretion of government functionaries. As you would imagine, each source of authority can overlap, creating conflict, or leave gaps, resulting in inconsistent implementation.

Information flows are constrained by technology as well as policymakers; technology is the medium by which information is shared. There are major differences in how information can be accessed when it is stored on paper as compared to digital formats (let alone microfiche, vellum, or cuneiform). Even within a particular format (such as paper or digital), there are many gradations of how information can be shared or broken down into manipulable data.

Legislatures, the foundational authority for gathering, producing, combining, and disclosing government-held information, are often the institution least capable of responding to how changes in technology could affect the flow of information. At the same time, legislatures are often the prime movers for improving information flows, in part because they have a broader perspective and wider mandate to implement systemic reforms than the other players.

In a series of upcoming blogposts, I’m going to examine government information ecosystems and make suggestions on how legislatures can do a better job gathering, sharing, combining, and disclosing information. I will look at:

  • Examples of how legislatures have attempted to improve government-held information disclosure policies, with a focus on the U.S. Congress. 
  • The extent to which legislatures incorporate technological requirements into law, with a deep exploration of how technology concepts can be translated into legal terminology, and the principal-agent dilemma of legislatures and agencies. 
  • How to lessen some of the technological constraints that make it hard for governments to use or share the information. 
  • Some of the incentives that drive government disclosure (or faux disclosure) of information.
  • How information flowing through government can be made more accurate, reliable, and timely.

I’m exploring these issues as we go. Your comments, suggestions, and feedback are welcome.

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