GRAMA and Cost


Speaking before the GRAMA working group today, Craig Call said "informed people make wise choices says." This is a great way to look at open records and open government. Another thought "GRAMA reduces the need for litigation and thus reduces overall costs." We should view open records as a responsibility of government, not a burden.

That said, GRAMA is the worst way to get open government. GRAMA ought to be the way exceptions are handled, not the way routine access to data is made. Exception handling costs any business money. Government is no different. The rule ought to be open access to public records.

Here's some thoughts I had about a few categorized issues:

  • Fees and Fee waivers - Transparency requires free and open access to public records. Free is an important part of open. Government can make "open" records closed when they jack up the price to the point people can't afford to see them. That said, I'm sympathetic to those who say that businesses who use voluminous GRAMA requests as the raw material for their business (like Mr. Pooper Scooper) should foot the bill. But I believe we should err on the side of open rather than saving money. In fact, I think that if we require government to bear the burden of GRAMA requests, they'll find cheaper ways to comply. I don't mind a cost for paper copies if online copies are free. To avoid unfair hits on small cities or lightly populated counties, the state should provide subsidies to create more open government.

  • Format - One thing that I felt after listening to much of the discussion today is that way too many people have "paper" on their mind. Certainly there are a lot of historical records that are only paper and we'll be living with those for a while. But we need to move more of our thinking to electronic, structured data. Just scanning something and putting it online as a PDF doesn't solve most of the problems we face. It also doesn't create a record that is useful for mashing up in interesting ways.

    People use the word "digitize" when they mean "digital" too often in these conversations. "Digitize" implies that we are creating a digital version of something formerly analog. Most of the interesting records are already digital. People say "digitize" because it sounds complicated and expensive. Creating a digital copy of a million records is easy if they're already digital and in structured format.

  • eGovernment can help with costs - Government ought to, as a matter of course, make any record classified as public, available online. GRAMA ought to require that all public records be made available online within a strict time limit and that such access include, where possible, access to the structure of the data (i.e. iCal versions of appointments, Excel files for spreadsheets, etc. rather than PDF printouts of the pages). The state should provide eGovernment help to cities and counties. We should also move toward structured data in systems and methods of automatically redacting sensitive information from records that would be otherwise public.

  • Public Records - GRAMA should clearly state what records are public (it does), it should also create structures where government workers can determine what is public and what is not without sending everything to counsel, and should severely restrict government entities (state and local) in how they charge and otherwise cause unncessary reviews. We should find ways to give government workers cover for GRAMA decisions. The current law makes incorrect disclosure or non-disclosure a Class B misdemeanor. That creates an environment where clerks will pass almost everything to counsel.

  • Servicing GRAMA Requests - GRAMA should institutionalize the notion of a GRAMA ombudsman (hat tip to Craig Call for this idea). An ombudsman can help the public create requests that are easier to answer and mediate disputes without going to court. There ought to be penalties for government wrongly denying GRAMA request. Public employees should be trained to see servicing GRAMA requests as an important part of their job, not a distraction.

  • Software - Taking these ideas to the area of Software, Brent Gardner of the UT Association of Counties said they were fighting a GRAMA request in order to protect the proprietary software they'd developed at great expense. That makes no sense to me. Any software developed at public expense ought to be open and public. GRAMA ought to require all software developed with public dollars be open source. Vendors need to understand that they records in their software, sold or developed for government use, will be made public and they cannot restrict through licensing the free disclosure of that data with its underlying structure intact.

Update: A couple of thoughts after some discussion with others: First, the "GRAMA for Free" policy (i.e. no fees for GRAMA requests) should only apply to public records. The idea is to incent government to make public records open and online. Second, public records requests should not require any identification of the requester. Anonymous requests should be honored. Obviously the best way to meet these requirements is to simple put public records online as a default.