I totally agree with the Seattle Times editorial board in arguing that government should “use technology to provide public records cheaply,” but I can’t sign on to their actual arguments.
In fact, our public records statutes can create an incredible burden on public agencies, requiring untold hours at taxpayer expense to fulfill requests that often amount to little more than vindictive fishing expeditions. (I’ve often been tempted to file a public records request asking for the cumulative cost to taxpayers of Stefan’s many public records requests… but I didn’t want to waste taxpayer money on a lark.) So when the Times complains about proposed legislation that would raise the maximum copying charge to $0.25/page, or deny requests to people who refuse to pay their outstanding balance, they make it sound like fulfilling a request requires little more effort than feeding some documents into a copier.
Hardly seems right that public agencies would be making such a profit off documents to which citizens are entitled. Though municipal lobbyists suggest the higher fee would offset costs of staff time in fulfilling the request, that is expressly prohibited by the state’s Open Records Act.
Um… so… if the Times recognizes that there are actual “costs of staff time in fulfilling the request,” why would they suggest that public agencies are making a profit?
Of course, they’re not. The Times is just being the Times. But at least they attempt to be constructive.
A better idea? Require cities, counties, ports and school districts to better manage their records. Why not make documents available by e-mail or copying them on to a disc — pennies a serving — even less if the requester provides the disc.
Yeah, that would address the cost to the requester of making copies, but it does nothing to address the real cost: the many staff hours spent gathering documents and fulfilling the request in the first place. In fact, it takes just as much effort, if not more so, to scan a document to disk as it does to feed it into a copier.
So how about an even better “better idea”? Since most records are produced on computers, why not just take every electronic document or file that would be open to a public records request, and just automatically place them in a searchable online database? Every email. Every Word document. Every spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation. Everything.
Because the vast majority of public records requests would probably be unnecessary if the records were actually, um, public.
Erica takes umbrage:
Goldy argues that the “many hours of staff time” it takes to fill records requests should be compensated, and argues that every single public record maintained by government agencies should be put in computer files for the public to sift through themselves. The logic is tortured: Government agencies provide a valuable service we should pay them for (sifting through records to fill requests), therefore we should get rid of that service entirely and make people who file records requests find the records they want themselves. Not to mention the fact that most agencies don’t have a surplus of public-disclosure staff; in my experience, most government agencies only employ one public-disclosure officer. Is Goldy really arguing that we should eliminate that position from every government agency?
Um… no. I’ve reread the post, and I don’t find myself making that argument anywhere. I didn’t present an either/or. Rather, I suggested that merely delivering records requests electronically doesn’t save all that much money, and that the real savings would come from putting as much of the public record as we can online, where much of the snooping could be done in a self-service manner. But I don’t see how one infers from this post that I favor eliminating public-disclosure staff.