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Thursday, June 20, 2013

The cost of public records

I could easily argue that the modest cost of local government complying with the California Public Records Act is a bargain: Access to public records is the best check on malfeasance, and malfeasance (particularly in contracting) costs a lot of money.

So if the issue before the Legislature is whether cities should pay to comply with the law or the state should reimburse them, it's a crazy question. Cities SAVE money by having solid open-government policies.

But there's another element here that drives me crazy. Cities shouldn't have to incur much in the way of costs to comply with the Public Records Act. Most of that cost is actually the cost of trying NOT to comply -- having lawyers look over documents, crafting excuses for not finding the information, fighting for confidentiality, etc. There's an easy answer:

Just make the stuff public.

We live in the digital age. Every document created at City Hall exists on a hard drive somewhere. It costs nothing -- zero, not a penny -- to copy that same document to a publicly accessible online database. It might cost a few bucks to create the software that automatically made everything in the public record instantly public, but I can pretty much guarantee that we can find pro bono software engineers to write the code if we need to.

Yes, some records are confidential. All you need is a button on the "SAVE" function that allows you to save that record into a closed database -- while at the same time making a public notification that the document exists and is not public. That determination can be challenged if somebody feels it's necessary.

But the vast, vast majority of what the press and public wants to see is legally public, and instead of sending city employees searching for it, and having city agencies trying to make life harder for people who are investigating them, just dump it all onto the web. We'll find what we need; the city will save a lot of money.

I don't know why San Francisco can't seem to do this. The mayor is the Tech King; why not use tech to make everyone's life easier?

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