Facilitator: Patrick Kabat

This breakout session began with two core premises. First, understanding who requests government information, who disseminates it, and how and to whom it is disseminated are crucial aspects of ensuring that public information reaches the largest possible public audience. Second, the availability and attitudes of government officials who respond to access requests is as important as the doctrine of access law in making public access to information meaningful. Transparency cannot exist without ready and meaningful public access to government information. But any conversation about meaningful access to public records, meetings, and information must look beyond the bare requirements of the law to the government officials who respond to records requests, and to the individuals who request records and publish it for public consumption. This “middle ground” between abstract rights to government information and the public who ultimately receives it is critical, and the breakout session devoted itself to understanding how information gets from the government to the public, and how information channels can be smoothed and enhanced.

The breakout group, consisting of individuals from county government, nonprofits, academia, political groups, and residents of Cuyahoga County, used the session to (1) identify obstacles to access to government meetings, records, and data; (2) to affirm a shared set of principles; and (3) to think creatively about how individuals and organizations can best be plugged into county government channels to ensure full access to and dissemination of public information. Generally, the consensus opinion of the group was that

  1. Chief obstacles to full transparency and access to information are a lack of readily posted raw data, limitations of citizens in understanding complicated information, and difficulties in identifying or reaching officials responsible for issuing information or resolving disputes about what is properly public information.
  2. Information should be readily accessible online as comprehensively and swiftly as possible. The group was hopeful that if the raw information was made available, stakeholders would ensure that it was communicated in more comprehensible formats, and expressed enthusiasm about a designated official within county government that would be a point of contact for facilitating public access.
  3. The group identified a number of existing organizations that would be natural partners in helping county government shoulder the burden of getting information out to the public in organized, accessible formats. In addition to the media, these included institutions of higher education, public school systems, civic and youth organizations, and our highly regarded public libraries.

The conversation began by emphasizing the importance of ensuring that government information is easily understood. Participants identified concerns about youth literacy and the digital divide, noting that raw government data can be mystifying and that not all residents are fully integrated online.

Acknowledging the labor-intensive process of translating information and the limited staff resources of county government, the group agreed that intermediaries who “crunch” government data play an especially important role in making government information comprehensible to the public. This is especially true with respect to traditionally underserved stakeholders, and the group identified several fruitful levers for ensuring full and meaningful dissemination of public information, including:

  • Public libraries. Cleveland has nationally recognized library systems, both Cleveland Public Library and the Cuyahoga County Public Library system, and the group was bullish on the repurposing of existing public terminals to improve access to government information online.
  • Youth-oriented service groups. Through the City’s sustainability initiative, existing volunteer and youth organizations are already constituted and could be effective partners in getting information out to younger constituencies.
  • Secondary Schools. Engaging public information about county government represents an extraordinarily fruitful civics exercise, and the pedagogical value of dealing with government information is immense. The public school systems represent an established distribution network that could be extremely effective in getting public information out.
  • Institutions of higher education. Volunteerism by students and graduates in a challenging job environment represents a fruitful source of labor to gather, organize, and disseminate public information, and by engaging county government directly, volunteers would gain valuable experience and exposure to potential career opportunities.
  • Community development corporations and nongovernmental organizations. Many of these organizations already participate in public records requests and attend public meetings, disseminating information about zoning hearings, criminal cases arising out of incidents in the community, development and contracting procedures, and a variety of other government functions to interested stakeholders in their communities. Better understanding how CDCs, bloggers, and community activists of all stripes access and publish information will enhance the fullness with which government information reaches the public.

The group then discussed how it could be helpful in identifying ways to organize government information, as the county government moves towards putting information online. Consensus emerged that the first priority should be to get as much raw, unfiltered information online as possible, and the group discussed some ways that third party groups might build on open, accessible, and searchable databases to make relevant government information easy to find. The group discussed resources for digitizing old information, and reviewed the cost-saving advantages of investing in full digitization.

  • A one-time cost of digitizing old information would produce long-term savings in dealing with records requests, for one of the most time-intensive aspects of records requests is the staff time required to help requestors tailor requests to be as efficiently responded to as possible.
  • By providing a full, open, and searchable database of public records, the need for making informal or formal records requests would vastly diminish, freeing up valuable government staff time. Additionally, those requests as might still be necessary could be much more expeditiously responded to, as requestors could tailor requests more narrowly.
  • Foundation partners could be recruited to help Cuyahoga County serve as a pilot program to evaluate the cost-saving rationale of digitization. Presumably, if hard data became available that demonstrated measurable cost savings over a medium-term time horizon, a flood of local government entities would follow suit.
  • By posting records produced in response to public records requests online, in addition to sending them to the individual making the request, the county could cut down on duplicative requests for records and make the most of the efforts already expended in locating and producing the records.

One of the participants helpfully reminded the group that, while remaining positive about the new culture of transparency represented by the County’s active participation in the Summit, it was important to remain mindful of past challenges and negative experiences. Undoubtedly there will always remain internal pressures to avoid disclosure of embarrassing or politically complicated information, and establishing shared expectations and a culture of active compliance with records requests was critical. Some members of the group remembered when county business was discussed through staffers to avoid triggering publicity requirements, and the group discussed how there was always the danger that a government official would take an unjustifiably narrow view of the public’s access rights, and that litigation was not always reasonably available to citizens to remedy errors in interpretation. The group had discussed some innovative models elsewhere which helped create a point of contact for amicably resolving records requests, including:

  • An independent agency charged with representing the public’s interest in access to information. Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission is a thought leader on this front, responsible for adjudicating records disputes through extremely user-friendly proceedings before litigation.
  • An ombudsperson responsible for smoothing out disputes over records by helping parties articulate requests and resolving disputes over access rights. At the federal level, a small ombudsperson’s office was created in the Library of Congress that represents an effective way to cut through what are often simply miscommunications.

While these solutions represent larger-scale initiatives than might be practicable, the group generally agreed that the idea of providing a consistent point of contact for resolving records requests was a good idea, perhaps designating individuals within government with the authority to help facilitate responses to records requests. The County has established a 24-hour help line, and has high-level staff positions responsible generally for responding to and coordinating records requests. In the spirit of finding easy-to-implement solutions, the group discussed how volunteers might be useful to the County in helping provide expertise to citizens navigating the records process for the first time, and how identifying an ombudsperson-like officer as a point of internal appeal for records denials might result in greater transparency.

The group then discussed how to be helpful to the county in identifying organizing principles for a public records database. Notice and minutes of meetings emerged as especially time-sensitive items, and consensus emerged that minutes and other documents should be directly uploaded to a public database as soon as practicable. The group recognized that some documents are properly exempted from public access, but records like meeting minutes and other documents unquestionably subject to the public’s right of access should be uploaded as rapidly as possible in an original format. The group was optimistic that interested parties would then make sure it reached larger audiences, but discussed ways to be purposeful about getting the information in the hands of individuals and entities that would make full use of it and propagate it to the largest possible citizen base.

The group closed by affirming that it would be helpful to the County to identify priorities in information production to help it make the most of limited staff resources, and help corral possible partners who could shoulder part of the burden of getting public information in the public’s hands. The group committed to meet and establish a concise set of proposals and priorities to build on the new County government’s good work in advancing transparency through the full dissemination of government information.

Resources
Emerging Issues In Ohio Public Records Law
Limiting Damages, Questioning Motives

Cost of Access to Public Records–Cuyahoga County

THE RULES

OTHER WAYS

THE CRITICAL IMPORTANCE OF INTERMEDIARIES

 

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