The Public-Records Question

from Governing's Managing Technology Conference in Seattle: At the final conference session on Friday, public sector leaders talked about how Web 2.0 is already changing government, bringing drastic changes in the coming years.
by | June 1, 2008

From Governing's Managing Technology Conference in Seattle:

At the final conference session on Friday, public sector leaders talked about how Web 2.0 is already changing government -- and how those tools will continue to bring about drastic changes in the coming years.

A lot of the conversation was spurred by Governing's May cover story on this topic, "Working in Wiki: How to Assemble Real Ideas in a Virtual World."

It was really cool seeing how some states and cities are already using Web 2.0, including Missouri's recruiting kiosk in Second Life, the Washington Secretary of State's MySpace page, Seattle's real-time mashup of emergency-response info, the LAFD's Twitter feed and the state of California's YouTube channel on paying your taxes (which we actually wrote about a couple months ago).

So anyway, yay technology! Yay, government!

But there's a rub.

The different speakers at Friday's session -- and conference attendees in the audience -- kept coming back to one key question:  When does this become public record?

Is your presence in Second Life part of the public record -- and subject to open-records laws and retention requirements?  If your agency uses a wiki to collect ideas, must you save every version of that document?

It's a question that no one has completely figured out, but it's a very important one.

Gary Robinson, director of the Department of Information Services for the state of Washington, said it's actually not that hard to figure out an answer to the question. "Really, it's the same thing we've been dealing with for years," he said. "Just like how we started documenting and storing emails on mainframe computers 10 years ago, we need to treat this the same way."

The key, Robinson said, is determining whether you're using a particular technology in the business of  government. So if some third-party user -- say, the UK site FixMyStreet.com -- creates a mashup of official graffiti reports with a map of your town, it's not your responsibility to maintain of record of that. But if you start using that map to help manage how you clean up your city's graffiti, then you now most likely need to treat that as a public record.

It's worth figuring out these answers -- and it's worth employing some of these new kinds of technologies in your city or state. Bill Schrier, the chief technology officer for the city of Seattle, said that Web 2.0 innovations help government be what it's supposed to be. "What is government? It's about people coming together in a community to accomplish what they can't do as individuals. And that's just what these technologies do. They make government a stronger part of the community. And that's why we should be embracing them."

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