Freedom of Information Act Requests Yield E-Troves of Documents
FOIA forces transparency in government, and transparency in turn forces revolution in the administration of public institutions – both national and local.
A FOIA requires government to disclose records to citizens upon request. Remarkably, the quantity of available records relevant to any given request is skyrocketing as government agents adopt digital technology – databases, electronic mail, instant messaging, text messaging, Twitter, collaboration software and more – to execute the details of day-to-day government. The implications for democracy are profound. So are the governance implications for enterprises of all descriptions.
Item One: Britain is in uproar over the expenses of Parliament members. The row started when a journalist used the UK’s new FOIA to request records about M.P. requests for reimbursement of living expenses. By age-old practice, the government covered M.P.s for the living costs associated with their official duties, but the specifics have always been hidden from public view. Reluctantly resistantly the government prepared to turn over expense records under FOIA – though with heavy redacting to protect M.P. privacy.
But by this time loads of (un-redacted) M.P. expense records had been compiled into something that did not exist in the old days . . . a neat, convenient-to-steal electronic form. This compact compilation of records enabled a whistleblower to spirit the records out of a government computer and into the hands of a newspaper. The Daily Telegraph’s ensuing publication of complete, open details has embarrassed M.P.s in an historic scandal. British government will never be the same. John F. Burns, “In Britain, Scandal Flows From Modest Request,” NY Times, May 20, 2009.
Item Two is Clark County School District, Nevada. Citizen Karen Gray requested under FOIA a year’s worth of the School Board’s e-mail, about 1500 messages. A few years ago, records of such granularity did not even exist for a typical school board (or city/municipal commission, county management, state committee or board of trustees). But e-mail has caused the creation of mounds of new records, which become fodder for any kind of legal investigation.
The District tried to delay disclosure. It also tried to charge Ms. Gray $4000 for the costs of recovering the records (and filtering them for private/confidential data), but those costs reflect out-of-date, manual methods for compiling and reviewing e-mail records. The Nevada courts resisted the delay and the high charges. The attitude of the courts was that the law favors inexpensive and generous disclosure. So the courts forced disclosure.
Ms. Gray’s case implies that Freedom of Information Act law is intolerant of governments that make their important e-mail records hard to recover. A modern e-mail archive appliance makes the compilation and filtering of e-mail (especially that of executives, professionals, top managers, and board members) quick and inexpensive . . . consistent with the purpose of FOIA law.
Mr. Wright is an advisor to messagingarchitects.com, the visionaries in e-records management.