Since open data is the new way of sharing public records, the way public records are created could use an update, too.
Technology empowers governments to collect information in digital format, making it that much easier to proactively share information online in digital format as open data. Electronic filing, or e-filing, is one method of collecting information digitally. E-filing not only eliminates the expenses of printing and storing paper forms, but it also means government staff don’t have to go through paper forms and transfer information into a computer, which can result in inaccuracies. E-filing can help ensure information is standardized by forcing specific choices in fields or detecting information that might be inaccurate (by flagging letters where only numbers should be reported, for instance). This standardized information, if appropriately structured, is easy to use and reuse in applications that share the information with the public in useful ways. Mandating e-filing can help ensure these benefits of cost-savings, accuracy and standardization in cases where people can be reasonably expected to have access to the technology for filing electronically.
Unfortunately, this opportunity for updating the approach to public records is often missed.
We already know the federal government has plenty of room for improvement in how it collects information. We’ve pointed out several of the missed opportunities for e-filing at the federal level and called for updates. Collecting and storing information on paper creates unnecessarily complex and expensive processes in the federal bureaucracy.
What about states and municipalities? We wondered whether local governments are doing any better with embracing the opportunities of technology instead of being stuck in paper processes.
We did some searching, and we found that while states and cities tend to allow for several common categories of information to be e-filed, there is progress that could be made by allowing more broadly for e-filing and mandating it where appropriate. Still, the feds might be able to learn a thing or two from what states and cities are doing.
Most states allow for e-filing of, at the very least, taxes, business licenses, court documents, vehicle registration, and unemployment filings or other claims. Some states also allow for e-filing of consumer complaints, instances of corporate fraud, traffic accidents, divorce filings, and other statements or reports. A few states allow for e-filing of lobbying reports. Our past research shows more than 30 states require e-filing of campaign finance reports.
There are some common categories of what cities allow to be e-filed, too, including information about campaign finance, lobbying activity, crime reports, local taxes, and courts documents.
With all these examples of information that can be e-filed, we decided to explore whether any states or municipalities have laws that could help inspire broad review of information collection systems or e-filing language at the federal level.
We found a few examples worth noting.
One of the most striking examples comes from a 2009 Memphis, Tenn., executive order that states: “All commonly used city forms and documents required to be completed by the public shall be available on the City website within not less than 180 days. The most commonly used forms and documents should be formatted to allow for completion and submission online.”
It looks like Memphis has been trying to follow through on that commitment. The city created a page with links to commonly used forms. Memphis residents can go online to make service requests, report streetlight outages, pay property taxes, make loan payments, look for jobs with the city, request an appearance by the mayor, and more.
In practice, the range of documents that can be e-filed in Memphis doesn’t necessarily go far beyond what big cities tend to offer. What is important, however, is the broad language that allows for continued use and expansion of e-filing across city departments. It encourages review of commonly used forms and finding opportunities for e-filing. The language would be even stronger if it explicitly required such review and clearly gave authority for mandating e-filing where appropriate.
It’s hard to find broad language that mandates that kind of review, however. Most statutes are simply permissive of e-filing. Ohio, for example, has broad language allowing state agencies to accept e-filing and store electronic records, but the language is more about allowing agencies to determine whether to even allow e-filing rather than requiring review of commonly used forms that could allow for e-filing. Texas statute similarly allows for e-filing of a range of documents at the state level. (At least Ohio has statute giving e-filed documents the same effect as paper documents, should anyone be unclear about the official status of e-filed records.)
In other states, there’s a mix of permissive language and mandates for e-filing being applied to certain departments or agencies rather than across all agencies.
Montana, for instance, has a fairly broad statute that allows for e-filing documents that have to be filed with the Secretary of State. The voluntary system seems to be working to some degree. The state just celebrated a record 69 percent of candidates filing electronically. The Secretary of State’s office also allows for e-filing of voter forms, business documents, records management documents, and even becoming a notary.
There are plenty more examples in state statutes, too. Virginia has broad language allowing for e-filing with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Kentucky statute allows for acceptance of electronic signatures, which can help lead the way for accepting more e-filed documents, as Louisiana shows with their statute combining electronic signatures and e-filing for business incorporation. Michigan statute allows for e-filing of campaign finance documents at the state and local levels. Nebraska incentivizes e-filing over paper submission of certain forms.
The list goes on, and it shows a wide range of possibilities for improving the collection and, eventually, the sharing of public records.
Sunlight is already asking the federal government to review information collection systems to find where e-filing could replace paper filing. States and municipalities should consider a similar review of their practices and language, with the aim being strong language that mandates review and gives clear authority for making upgrades.
When it comes to e-filing and modernizing our public records systems, there’s room for improvement at all levels.