GRAMA, Open Government, and Privacy


I'm been asked to serve on the working group to understand what, if any, changes need to be made to GRAMA, the Government Records Access and Management Act--Utah's version of the Freedom of Information Act. This issue has been of considerable interest to me since it came up in the final days of the 2011 legislative session.

The Utah lesiglature passed a bill, HB477, that restricted access to records by making some communications something other than government records (and thus out of the perview of GRAMA) and making others specifically protected. The bill also tries to deal with cost and privacy issues.

I am a believer in open government, but then you won't find anyone in this debate who will say "I believe in closed government." I'm a believer in eGovernment as an effective, efficient, and timely way to create more openness in government. I believe in the Sunlight Foundation's Principles of Transparent Government.

I'm also a believer in privacy and think that even in matters of public discourse, there are places where privacy serves the public interest. GRAMA already has privacy protections built in, but it's 20 years old, so I think it's fair to ask if anything needs to be retought.

And of course, that's the problem. For some nothing short of 100% transparency will do. For some, privacy is paramount. These principles are in conflict with each other and there are no perfect answers.

Some have written to me to express their dissatisfaction with HB477. I think the working group ought to ignore HB477 and start with GRAMA as it exists and ask what concerns people have and make suggestions about what should be changed. I don't have preconcieved ideas about what those changes should entail.

Most of the heat around HB477 seems to be aimed at the legislature, but we should keep in mind that GRAMA applies to the executive branch, public schools, and higher education as well (with certain restrictions). This isn't just about knowing what legislators are doing. It's about understanding the workings of our government.

As I've started to research the issue, I've created a delicious tag for HB477 that will show what I'm reading. Feel free to contact me (I'm @windley on Twitter) with ideas and concerns. I'm not interested in vitriol and personal attacks, I'm interested in ideas about how we can make government open.