Public (?) records

March 17, 2015

Recently, Gary Pruitt, the president of The Associated Press released a column: “AP CEO: Government undermining ‘right to know’ laws”. In it he chided federal, state and local governments for

“undermining the laws that are supposed to guarantee citizens’ rights to information, turning the right to know to just plain no.”

He points to many specific efforts to obtain information on a variety of new-worthy subjects from the federal government that the government foiled, directly or indirectly. Among the obstacles that he faced were year+ delays (because an agency “has too many freedom of information act requests to meet deadlines”), and receiving hundreds of pages (nine years later!), with virtually every page completely blacked out on the basis that they contained “trade secrets”. In addition, some agencies just took more than a year to answer a simple request or even refused to answer any requests.

In addition, files that were potentially “embarrassing” were blacked out on the inapplicable basis that the agency had to shield personal information, such as a Social Security number. At the state and local level, things are not much better. Pruitt pointed out that officials in Ferguson, Missouri, billed the AP $135/hour to retrieve emails from a handful of accounts about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown – that is 10 times the cost of an entry-level clerk in Ferguson. At this is not limited to the AP – he cited other organizations facing similar barriers.

Well, that is just the “war” between the press and the government, right? No, it rolls over onto competitive intelligence as well.

What Pruitt talks about is a continuation of the trend that I noted some time ago – restricting the public’s access to government records because it is inconvenient (to the agency), potentially embarrassing to others, takes some time, or because it allegedly (and I use the word very carefully here) violates some protection in the law designed to prevent governments from disclosing personal information, business trade secrets, and the like – not to mention routinely blocking disclosures based on national security[1].

Production of these records now depends more on the attitude of the individual or individuals tasked with the project than the right of citizens to these records. let me add a few of our our experiences;

  • In one state, every time the state went into a budget “crisis”, it basically froze, without official notification of course, even acknowledging its receipt of open records requests, in spite of the fact that it charges for fulfilling the requests (so it could have actually made money on them).
  • In another state, requests that have to be acknowledged in a specific amount of time are answered with the statement that the request is being routed to someone else for their handling:  to the first bureaucrat, that constitutes fulfillment of the statutory obligations, but we just wait – and wait – and wait for the second (often unidentified bureaucrat) to respond.

Here are a couple more of my favorites (feel free to provide yours):

  • “We do not keep those filings for more than 30 days.” Huh?
  • “You have to give us the document number so we can find it”. And the document number is assigned by the filer (and appears on the document you want). Catch 22.
  • “You can come down and review the file here in the office (nine states away) and we will then make copies to send to you (in 7 weeks).” That is my “y’all come on down sometime.”
  • “The building plans are all returned to the architects, but they still have to let you see them.” Right.

And don’t get me started about “open meetings” laws that do not really force governments to operate openly (and to keep minutes) and, where the violation of these statutes is, at least in my home state of Pennsylvania, so widespread as to rarely evoke media comment.

What this means is that for those of us in CI is that the days of relying on swift and (relatively) complete disclosure of public records, information to which we should have access, appears to be vanishing. With respect to public records, transparency and open government are now just words – they are no longer an actuality. Government information access, except for the information that a particular government unit wants people to have, is becoming more difficult; transparency, where it still exists, is vanishing.

[1] See John J. McGonagle Carolyn M. Vella, “Competitive Intelligence, Corporate Security and the War on Terrorism”, CIO Magazine, October 2007.


One Comment on “Public (?) records”

  1. […] What Pruitt talks about is a continuation of the trend that I noted some time ago – restricting the public’s access to government records because it is inconvenient (to the agency), potentially embarrassing to others, takes some time, or because it allegedly (and I use the word very carefully here) violates some protection in the law designed to prevent governments from disclosing personal information, business trade secrets, and the like – not to mention routinely blocking disclosures based on national security. Production of these records now depends more on the attitude of the individual or individuals tasked with the project than the right of citizens to these records. let me add a few of our our experiences;  […]


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