Sunshine in the digital age

Information created by public agencies using public data should be public
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EDITORIAL The California Public Records Act needs an update. So does the state's Brown Act, which mandates open meetings of government bodies, and the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance. These are the landmark laws that keep government from operating in secret — but all were written long before the explosion of information technology profoundly changed the way city, state, and local agencies compile, sort, process, present, and preserve information.

And now, with agencies at every level trying to use information technology to hide data from the public and courts struggling with laws that didn't anticipate the modern era, open-government advocates need to be working on every level to protect and expand access.

As we point out in this issue, technology can be used to spy, to hide, and to obfuscate — but it can also be used to make the operations and processes of the public sector far more open and accessible. Properly used, today's information technology can vastly improve the way governments work — and it's neither difficult nor expensive to make that happen.

The state Legislature, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and the Sunshine Task Force should be looking at ways to make sure that computers don't increase secrecy — and to take advantage of the opportunities modern technology offers.

The Brown Act, passed in 1954, forbids public agencies from meeting in secret, except in very limited circumstances. The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance goes further. The laws have been interpreted to mean that the members of a board or commission can't use e-mail to discuss pending business; that would amount to a closed-door meeting. That same interpretation ought to apply to members participating in discussions on, say, a Yahoo! news group. Deliberations on a policy matter would be taking place outside of public view.

But what if the public was invited? What if a virtual discussion took place before or between traditional meetings — and any member of the public could log in from anywhere (work, home, the public library, terminals in City Hall) and watch? What if people — who are now allowed only a minute or two to comment in public meetings — were able to post longer, more detailed comments that policymakers would see during online discussions? What if the entire record of that meeting were instantly available on the Web, in a searchable form?

Would that be an increase in public access? What about the large number of people who still don't have computers or Web access — would they be left out?

That's just one of the questions sunshine advocates are talking about. Legislators need to be addressing the issues, too.

As Kimo Crossman reports on page 14, increasing public access doesn't have to be difficult or expensive — in fact, there are ways to save the city money. One obvious idea: almost every document that's produced by a city employee, including e-mail, is already considered a public record. Why not simply program the computers to make an instant copy of everything and post it to a public Web site? That way someone looking for memos from, say, the Public Utilities Commission addressing solar energy could simply search that site with those key words and come up with all of the records quickly.

That would save time for journalists and citizen watchdogs who now have to request those records from the agency — and it would save money for the city. If the documents were all searchable for anyone, there would be no need to spend time and money responding to public-records requests.

It wouldn't be hard at all to add a "possibly confidential" key to records, preventing documents that really should remain secret from going into the public file.