It’s Electronic Records Day, and it’s a good opportunity to examine how governments are faring when it comes to creating, managing, and sharing public records in electronic formats.
Electronic Records Day is an initiative of the Council of State Archivists aimed at raising awareness around the importance of managing and preserving electronic records. It’s a topic that can use all the awareness it can receive. Despite living in an increasingly digital world, state and municipal governments are often caught ignoring or outright avoiding the importance of electronic records, even when those records are a key part of documenting the decision-making process. We see this in the continued stories from around the country about struggles over whether and how to preserve government emails and issues around using private email or text-messaging accounts for decision-making conversations to avoid public records laws.
Electronic records stretch far beyond emails and texts, however. More and more government information is being created digitally and kept in digital format, from crime data and 311 calls to budget data and more. For the information that shines light on how government functions and important government decisions, there need to be policies that ensure this information will be accessible. Managing electronic records can present special issues that need to be addressed, but there are plenty of strategies for handling those concerns. Ultimately, recognizing the importance of electronic records is key for advancing the cause of open data, which aims for all public information to be proactively released online in a way that is easily accessible and reusable.
Most local governments are far from attaining that goal of requiring the proactive release of public information, however. In the meantime, the reactive release of information continues through public records requests and responses, and there is an opportunity to make that process more proactive and open.
Some local governments are starting to recognize that sharing responses to public records requests can benefit the public by making it easier to access information that has already been released. Sharing responses to public records requests can also benefit governments by saving them from answering the same requests repeatedly.
One example of this progress is in Montgomery County, Md., which recently launched a portal for anyone to view responses to Maryland Public Information Act requests. Chicago, Oakland, and DC have similar portals, with varying degrees of usefulness. (Cook County also used to keep a log of public records requests, but the list appears not to have been updated since 2012.)
What makes Montgomery County’s effort different is that posting information about public records requests and sharing the responses are mandated by law. The mandate is included in the County’s open data law, adopted in 2012. That means the County will, hopefully, continue the release of this information. Such a law has also been proposed in New York City, but, so far, Montgomery County appears to be the only local government with a law requiring the online sharing of responses to records requests.
This is a great step forward — so why aren’t more local governments doing this? There are plenty of tools available to carry out such a mandate, after all.
Electronic Records Day is a good opportunity to call for more of the forward-thinking that Montgomery County demonstrated by enshrining the importance of an electronic approach to public records in law. While local governments work to adopt open data policies and realize the full potential of those policies, they should also be addressing existing public records laws and making those more proactive.
There is much more that needs to be done around electronic records and improving the openness of public information broadly, but requiring the proactive release of public records requests and responses is one encouraging step forward. Hopefully there will be much more progress to mark for the next Electronic Records Day.