Over the years, the public’s expectations for government transparency and openness have increased while Idaho’s public records law has not kept up. It used to be that a government was considered sufficiently transparent if you could walk into your local city hall and look at the budget and city council meeting minutes, for example. It was considered transparent if you could request a record and receive a response in three working days, as is required under Idaho’s statute.
Today, people expect more. The city that merely provides paper copies of information on demand is considered opaque in its interactions with residents.
What do citizens want? They want to be able to look at government budgets—in detail that might even include the government’s check register and credit card expenses—in the comfort of their own homes via the Internet. They similarly want to be able to explore key documents and records, memos and correspondence, contracts and bids.
For information not posted on a government website, the public wants to be able to request and receive records via email. All of this is possible at no additional cost to the government, and can result in savings for the taxpayer.
During the last several weeks, I have had interactions with local and state government agencies that trouble me. For example, neither Twin Falls County nor Ada County uploads complete detailed budgets on their websites. Overview information is available, but nothing that a taxpayer can review and thoroughly critique.
An Ada County official told me that no one had ever requested the data before, which I find stunning. Still, the information exists. It’s what county commissioners use to adopt a budget. Why not provide the public what their elected officials use to make decisions?
Here’s what else government agencies are doing to restrict access to public information:
Agencies are taking public data and converting them into file formats that make it difficult and sometimes impossible to utilize without buying special software. One agency told me that’s to keep the data from being manipulated. But manipulating data is precisely what should happen. Data should be sifted, sorted, measured and analyzed. Technology shouldn’t be used as a weapon that forces the public to view information in a form that is static and suitable only to the government.
Government agencies frequently tell us and other members of the public that they’d be happy to allow us to review their information—if we’re willing to travel hours to their offices. Emailing public records? Some agencies are just unwilling to do it.
On occasion, government officials hire attorneys to investigate government misconduct. Why? Because under state law, the attorney-client privilege keeps investigatory records out of the hands of the public.
Government agencies and local governments are posting information on their websites—but good luck finding it. This allows agencies to claim they’re transparent without having to worry that people will find what they’re searching for.
Few laws do more to boost the public’s confidence in government as those that produce greater transparency. Conversely, every time the public is denied access to information, or when that information is made difficult to access, it diminishes our confidence in government. That’s why the Legislature should fix and modernize the public records law next year.
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