An Open (Online) Book: What SB 272 Means for California Public Records

It may seem hard to imagine but it’s been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a sweeping measure that suddenly allowed all American citizens access to public records that where previously out of reach to anyone but government employees. And in the five decades that FOIA has been in place, trillions of pieces of information have been digested by a wide array of Americans eager for a more transparent system of government.

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Today, the effects from FOIA continue as state and local entities strive to maintain an openness that would have been unheard of before Johnson’s act. And of course now, thanks to the joys of the Internet that we hold at our fingertips, accessing information has become easier and astronomically faster. But unfortunately, despite how technologically advanced our state in particular is in the larger scheme of things, the public sector hasn’t quite kept up with the times and has been frustratingly slow in making public data available online.

That has recently changed with the introduction of SB 272: The California Public Records Act, which for the first time establishes a statewide standard that agencies must follow in adopting open data policies. The thinking behind this effort is that the reams of data maintained by those agencies are, of course, a matter of public record, and therefore should be viewable and downloadable from any and all public websites in order to create accountability and new modes of engagement with the citizenry.

As the bill reads, it would require local government agencies to publish a list of all “information systems” they maintain and catalog the information contained therein. Additionally, the bill calls for unprecedented transparency in informing the people how data is collected and archived as well as gives a clear indication of exactly whom—such as an independent vendor—is doing the collecting. There is also a requirement that the agencies inform the public how frequently the system data is collected and how often it’s updated.

Critics of SB 272 have been quick to point out what they see as shortcomings of the legislation: it doesn’t include a requirement to actually publish the datasets themselves online, but only to be forthcoming on what is available for public viewing. Additionally, the legislature has provided exemptions for school districts and local education agencies, which is a curious loophole that will certainly raise some eyebrows given the ongoing tension of not knowing basic information about the teachers who are educating our state’s children and, even more importantly, how schools are allocating and spending taxpayer’s money.

Also strangely absent from the bill is a clear timeline of how long the various public agencies operating in California have to implement the policy, which has many watchdogs worried that inherent bureaucratic impediments will surely create delays. But in the end the bill should certainly be viewed as a positive step forward in leveraging the power of online tools to enable greater access to data in accordance with that watershed mandate that is 50 years old and counting.

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