Transparency in actions and accountability of activities by government are two of the most important aspects of American democracy. By expecting openness in communication with the citizenry, a trusting relationship can be built between public employees and the individuals they serve thus creating effective government that meets the needs of the people. A primary means of guaranteeing Open Government is to support and implement Open Records policies and activities.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for US Federal Agencies and the similar Freedom of Information Legislation (FOIL) that has been implemented by many States serve to support the concept of Open Records and thus Open Government. Many public employees, including Records Managers and Archivists, diligently strive to adhere to mandates for providing records as appropriately requested by individuals, attorneys, organizations, and journalists. However, as with all good intentions, some disturbing realities are descending upon us.
Government agencies have limited staff and increasingly limited budgets with which to accomplish an ever increasing spectrum of informational demands while they simultaneously cope with public scrutiny. Providing records as requested is a goal that everyone supports in concept. But with limited staff, an increasingly complex spectrum of information resources and growing demands for records, it may be time to become more realistic in what we expect from our public employees and their organizations. To be blunt - How much time and resources do we want them to spend doing actual work and creating records, and how much time do we want them scrambling to provide the records they just produced?
There is a growing concern on the part of the public that they are not getting sufficient open records from government, while that same public calls for less government, reduced budgets, and more effective production of all information upon demand in electronic formats. We are seeing a lot of government agencies, including federal, state, and local, simply incapable of providing vast quantities of relevant records to the public, if they are to get any actual work accomplished. Records managers, archivists and departmental employees are regularly accused of failing to meet the demands of Open Records seekers, many of which have very narrow self-serving intentions for using the records they are demanding.
Public employees and officials are to serve the entirety of the general public. They may sincerely want to fulfill every Open Records request they receive, but limited staff and resources demand that they budget their work efforts among a variety of challenges. For this reason, it seems time to create a Line Item Budget Model for Open Records. This model for budgets would allocate specific resources for the provision of Open Records. It could be presented to funding agencies and the public so they could see specifically the impact of Open Records requests relative to other ongoing expectations of government services.
More publicly discussing these Open Records Budget Line Items that address planning for records requests could promote increased trust between the public and the public employees striving to meet their needs. And this openness about the limits of government resources could decrease much of the negatively that often pervades claims by some of the more demanding members of the public in their expectations of quick, cheap, provision of records that meet their specific unique needs. State simply, the public must expect to get pretty much what it pays for. It seems unrealistic to expect that limited numbers of public employees can address the growing volume of records requests from an increasingly larger and more demanding populace. A great many very conscientious Records Managers and Archivists are very stressed out these days!
The public has a right to see the records of government. And governments should be ready to explain the costs to the public of seeing that information.