The Foibles of FOIA

This week I received a request at work for information that has me wondering how US citizens and in particular Illinois citizens would feel about the results of our new FOIA law. This particular FOIA request ended up taking way too much time from other more pressing matters. However based on the new law, we had to immediately address and handle it regardless of what might be considered more important by our city and citizens.

The request was commercial in nature, and while I tried to send what we had related to the request, in the end, I could not send the actual data they wanted because it was exempted under the law. Finally after I had sent the final email in a series of many that stated the denial of the request, I received the form that I had been asking for all along to verify the commercial status of the request. From the form, I discovered this person was in Romania. This is when I realized they had been asking for information we had spent our citizens' money producing for the benefit of our city so that they could launch a website to make money off our data. The citizens of our city paid me to put their needs and concerns aside to instead devote my attention to someone in Romania. And in the end, the Romanian citizen did not receive what they wanted anyway. 

I realize there is the argument that government should be sharing data to help create and sustain jobs. But what I wondered was does this extend to other countries? How do our citizens feel about allowing people in other countries make money off work that has been produced with US tax dollars? And has our economy and country become so globally oriented that this really isn't an issue?




Sustainable Open Government

Government BuildingThe cry for open government is rising and elected officials are delivering. But in the zeal to throw open the doors to the records vault, no one bothered to fully understand the impact except for those of us who actually work for government. But no one wants to hear from us. Politicians only care about pleasing voters (particularly when their records are not subject to these laws), and citizens think we are only expressing concern because we have something to hide.

The whole thing reminds me of stories about buried treasure. A group of people hear tales of buried treasure; spend a lot of time and effort tracking down its location; then finally there is that climatic moment of uncovering the treasure box and throwing open the lid to find…nothing. The moral of the tale for me was always don’t waste a lot of time and effort on nothing. Course you are always going to have some people say that you have to keep trying because there is always that one chance you might find something worthwhile.

So how much money and time do we as a country want to spend hunting down tales of treasure? Because FOIA laws like the one that recently went into effect in Illinois have a significant cost potential. And that cost is not only for the government.

Soon after the new year started I heard of one city that got a FOIA request asking for copies of all invoices and contracts for the last 12 years. First of all, in Illinois, governments only have to keep invoices for 7 years. But even finding and copying all invoices and contracts for the past 7 years can take up a lot of staff time. This small community will most likely have to shut down all city services to comply with this request because it has to be delivered in 5 days. So the citizens of that community go without services that week. Another story reported that Lakewood, Wash., spent $16,000 last year complying with the requests from one person.

At this point, if a terrorist wants to disable government, they don’t have to bomb a government building – all they have to do is continually file FOIA requests. And although that is a tongue in cheek comment, the potential for shutting down government to deal with these requests is real. But because citizens do have a right to public records, and elected officials are going to make sure laws are in place to protect that right, someone has to figure out a way to comply without shutting down core services. We have to make open government sustainable because it most definitely is not under the current structure.

Some have suggested hiring additional people whose only job is to deliver information. But this is going to cost a lot of money, and no one wants to pay higher taxes for more government personnel. Many have suggested putting the information in digital format and offering it online. This is certainly a sustainable method of delivery. If we had everything available immediately and online, little to no staff time is required to collect and distribute information. The underlying problem with this is getting it in digital format or if it already is in digital format, such as e-mail, getting it collected and distributed. Those steps still take up a lot of staff time.

So what is the answer? I believe a sustainable open government will require those of us working in government to make a significant change in our workflows, our policies and standards, and the tools we use. Let’s take e-mail to demonstrate my point. In order for e-mail to be easily made available to the public, there must be an “open government e-mail tool” designed to automatically take each e-mail and the related response and post it somewhere accessible to the public. It would also be nice if it maintained some structure in the flow so conversations can be easily followed. This could be expanded to include all documents received and/or generated: make all vendors send digital invoices; change word processing tools and mobile inspection apps to automatically save or post online, etc.

A lot of people working for government might initially be shocked about such a transparent suggestion. But if you work for government and think about it, you start to realize that there really is nothing there so who cares if it is out there for anyone to see? The key is in realizing up front everyone can see what is received and generated in our offices, and then finding a way to automatically collect and post these documents to a public site online. We will also need to rely on companies making software for government to incorporate these open government methods into their tools.

Two other steps are necessary to ensure a sustainable open government. One is to officially designate exactly what type of information must be collected and made available (such as do we tape phone calls – how far are we to go?). Then develop an open government template for online sites that integrate with the open government tools. And the other step is to integrate a local government/civic education into our high school curriculum. Because in the end all of this will mean nothing and will only lead to further problems if no one really understands the treasure they find.


Open Government: A New Type of Reality Show?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about open and transparent government, public data collection and distribution, and freedom of information. People are excited about online tools that allow for sharing of data. And politicians are eagerly answering the cries for open government by passing new FOIA laws and demanding data sets be released online.

But back behind the doors of city hall, those of us working in government are a little more cautious. Even though most support an open and transparent government, many are concerned over the delivery. We see the potential for all this to turn government into a new type of reality show. Mark Drapeau recently posted an exploration of always-on government that hints at this type of situation.

So how can we deliver relevant information to the public while maintaining and maybe improving the dignity of government and its people?

Establish Data as a Governmental Function
One of the first steps is to decide data collection and delivery for public use really should be a function of government. Government traditionally provides public safety and public works and does so under a set of state and federal laws. These same laws regulate what local government can and cannot do. If government is to elevate data to the same level as a utility, this needs to be a public decision supported by legislation. President Obama’s declarations and mandates coupled with a public push for open government should facilitate adoption of this first step at the state and local levels.

Choose the Data Types
Next the public and the government need to collaborate and settle on what types of data should be initially collected for public consumption. There should also be a mechanism for considering and approving the inclusion of additional datasets in the future. Right now, the public is demanding that all the data within the walls of government be released. But they might not really be aware of what is there. So lets look at some of the information held by a typical state or local government:

List of complaints, names and addresses of those complaining, issue about which they filed a complaint

Copies of building permits along with detailed plans of homes (makes it easier anonymous thiefs to case homes)

Names of those delinquent or late on paying water/electric/sewer bills.

Names of those who have submitted a check or credit card payment and had notices of insufficient funds or late payments or credit card denials.

Names of those paying property taxes and date by which their payment is made.

Driver’s license numbers and vehicle license expiration dates with names and whether they were paid on time.

Name and address of all who have permit violations

State income tax returns with names, income, etc.

Traffic accidents with driver and passenger names, insurance companies, etc. (imagine someone using these reports to create a daily accident blog for a community!)

Names on all utility bills, amount of water/sewer/electric used each month

Should government blindly release all of this data to anyone? Some states like Illinois have already decided. In typical non-Gov2.0 fashion, legislators passed a new FOIA law that goes into affect Jan. 1, 2010. It requires government to release just about everything including a lot of the information listed above -even if the request is made anonymously. One exception to note is data that would compromise someone’s safety. But should an “in-the-trenches” employee have to make the decision about which data compromises someone’s safety? Absolutely not. Instead there needs to be clear guidance on what data should be distributed. In Illinois, this guidance could have easily been developed using Gov 2.0 tools with input from the public and government. Instead the reality show for Illinois government begins Jan. 1, 2010.

Develop Data Standards and Formats
So back to our open government plan: after choosing the type of data, the next decision involves the standards by which each dataset is collected and the formats in which it is distributed. Here is an example: government already collects the number of vehicles traveling along a roadway on an average day. How often should this collection take place? Once a year, every day? Should we collect the type of vehicle? It’s color? Should this collection take place on all roads? The point is there is an endless amount of data to collect, and not all of it would be relevant or worth collecting. A standard helps find the most efficient and beneficial method. And a standard ensures someone can compare data across all agencies.

Carry These Standards Across All Agencies
A national standard would help create meaningful sharing and comparisons, and the federal government is best poised to develop this standard. There are signs that federal agencies are working in this direction and taking a more considered and thoughtful approach than what was done in Illinois. But at this time, federal agencies are more focused on delivery of their own information. There needs to be an initiative by state and local governments, with guidance by the federal government, to bring this open government plan down to our level.

Find a Way to Pay for Data Collection & Delivery!
Finally, we need to find a way to pay for all this. Because just handling one FOIA request could take several full-time staff members working for weeks depending on the amount of information involved. Unfortunately some citizens have the misconception that this cost is minimal. Here is an exchange of comments from a recent online news article reporting on Illinois’ new FOIA law:

neogenesis said: “You people have no idea of the amount of work it takes to respond to just one FOIA request…….. ”

BobJudd/Chatham said:
“We people don’t care…Just do it..
People get paid to hide the records ? Just reverse the process..”

As someone working in government I understood what neogenesis meant: filling one request can shut down your whole department taking up tax dollars that could be spent delivering other services. And this is caused by the request of one person.

Unfortunately the simple quote does not adequately convey this to someone who does not work in government. This lack of understanding of the scope is shown in the response by BobJudd/Chatham who indicates no one cares about the time involved. Then BobJudd/Chatham goes on to express a typical misconception the public has about government – that we are spending our whole day trying to hide information.

Get Involved!
These types of exchanges fit right into the reality show mentality and do nothing to ensure successful delivery of a truly open government. Over the next month or so, I believe agencies will come together in an effort to develop an open government plan that can be implemented at the local level. If you have thoughts on this issue, feel free to share in the comment section below. And I encourage anyone interested in working towards this effort to stay tuned as we try to turn this reality show into a documentary.

(The post above reflects my own personal thoughts and opinions and are not necessarily those of my employer.)