A hat tip to John F Moore for pointing out a posting on cityethics.org entitled “A Government Ethics Approach to Open Records“. However, as someone with a view from both sides of the fence or barricade (depending upon one’s opinion), I believe the author Robert Wechsler, Director of Research at City Ethics, is getting a little overheated and might find more tax-payer dollar savings from adopting a more federal approach, which may not come easy to citizen of the USA.
Mr Wechlser’s gripe is the charging of amounts like 25 cents per page for Freedom of Information request responses. First of all, the charge is not just for the copy – it’s for someone to dig out and then manually copy the information, which isn’t always an easy task especially if it has to be edited for any personal information. I don’t think anyone is being obstructive, that is the way to conspiracy theory mania. I agree that it would be better online – but in what data format or structure? I’ve no idea how many local authorities or jurisdictions there are in the USA but if all those different sets of data are to be published and offered up to an API, one structure and an easily tweakable API might save an awful lot of time and effort?
In a recent post I reported that the NAO revealed UK local government had around 1300 functions to deal with from schools to car parks, from town planning to pest control. Someone needs to decide which are the most important to be published first and get on with it – there will be some variation from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Even better if software application suppliers could squeeze out the data from their applications in an open format – many of the apps are widely used and the avoidance of having to do it oneself would encourage sales. However, as with photocopies, pushing out the data still has human intervention and costs at some stages and admittedly this may reduce as others extract and reformat, but there will be a capital investment required.
Government does need to be open and transparent, but there’s an awful lot of data in there to get out, along with an awful lot of personal data to keep behind the firewalls. Paranoia about the data controllers is easy to come by, but in most cases they are just trying to do a job in difficult circumstances and having to please many masters (including the citizen). I extract information all the time – academic, historical and other – it all has a cost to compile, host and store and someone has to pay for it sometime.
My griping about per-page records charges would not seem so “overheated” if you had told your readers that the charges were for Town Meeting (that is, the town legislature’s) minutes (and clearly required no research by any official). Everyone can agree that legislative meeting records should be placed online.
It would also have been useful to let your readers know what I meant by a government ethics approach to public records. Here’s some of what I said; clink the link above to see my entire, rather calm analysis:
Government ethics is about making open, responsible decisions that affect citizen participation in government. From a government ethics point of view, public records are public resources, and ethics codes prohibit the misuse of public resources. Usually, the misuse of public resources involves personal benefit. But that’s only because this is what is normally the case, with respect to personal use of city vehicles, equipment, and computers.
Transparency involves a different sort of misuse of public resources, a misuse that is not covered by an ethics code. A city or county clerk, or another designated official, has control over the use of public records. This official, and the local legislative body, determine the government’s priorities. The assumption too often is that accessibility to public records is a low priority, because it does not further the goals of providing government services such as education, public works, or the collection of taxes.
Because transparency involves a misuse of public resources, enforcement need not be legal and done by suing a city or county. It may be handled like any other government ethics situation, that is, by dealing with officials and their obligations. For example, castigating the town clerk in my Town Info blog was sufficient to change town officials’ policy. The First Selectman soon wrote a memo outlining what was required to comply with open records laws. And the town clerk not only allowed me to have minutes for free, but she also called me with information about changes in meeting times and places, so this information could appear on my website.