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Sunshine Week sheds light on value of software in improving records management

Early one morning, during my state tenure, I watched the departmental file and e-mail server disappear in the company of some state security officers. Its contents were at the center of an investigation into how and why a lucrative tax credit was passed in my state. This was a first for me. Previously, I had not really thought about e-mail and electronic documents as being public records. Soon thereafter, a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was made for all paper files. This provoked a huge and lengthy effort to find, copy and turn over all documents.

Today, nearly a decade later, we are much more schooled in the public records, or FOIA, request. But that doesn’t mean the issues have been fixed.

Concerns about the delays in fulfilling requests were highlighted this week when Ohio Auditor David Yost unveiled a new state program to track the time taken by municipalities to meet public records requests. The program seeks to address that by requiring logs to track requests and how long it takes to respond, which the state will then review for compliance with the municipalities individual records request policies.

This program comes on the heels of the national Sunshine Week, when the federal government unveiled a new website devoted to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), foia.gov. All of these new developments are reactions to concerns about how public money is being spent, scrutiny that has been heightened by the tight budgets everywhere. Some counties and cities, however, are more than prepared for this effort – those with enterprise content management solutions.

How can ECM help? Consider the three difficulties I experienced.

Public suspicion
When my departmental file server disappeared, it was because the media felt that my department had not been forthcoming with all relevant documents and that the delay in meeting their request was intentional. This suspicion was fueled in part by the lack of easily available records on how my department made decisions.

Because of issues like this, transparency has been a major push for government, especially in recent years. Specifically, they want to make public records available and searchable online, 24/7, whenever the public wants to know, without the need for a formal request. ECM software is part of the solution, powering transparently in the background by providing web access to things like council agendas and minutes, agenda packets, court documents, land and tax records and other typical public records request targets.

By making these available as an everyday feature of online citizen services, government not only makes requests easier to fulfill, but also diminishes the suspicion around government decisions by committing to providing a view into their processes.

There are no staff assigned to record requests
In my experience, few government entities have dedicated staff to meet these needs – not good when a single large records request could take months to satisfy when you’re dealing with paper. With an ECM solution, and tools like full-text search, a request is just about producing a list of electronic documents which can then be printed, e-mailed or saved to storage, and then provided without having to search for days and weeks and then spending hours at a photocopy machine. And most importantly, staff shortages no longer causes delays that make constituents angry or media scrutinize question an agency’s commitment to open government.

Missing files
At one time in my career, we had files in no fewer than four locations, making remembering which file was where absolutely maddening. When physical paper files are scattered in different storage areas, there is always the possibility that a key file is missing or has been lost, and t is difficult to know if you’ve collected all the relevant documents, which could be interpreted as not being fully responsive to the request.

ECM users know that the central repository that holds their documents electronically makes it easy to do a comprehensive search, saving time and staff from long and hard efforts to be sure that they have completely met the public records request terms, particularly when they are searching for files that cover programs over a number of years.

Overall, the move towards more open and transparent government is important and must be continued. Constituents should know and understand how the often hard decisions of government are made, and they should be able to review the basis for decisions anytime they want, not just through a formal public records request. The good news for government ECM users is that with the right vendor, they already have affordable, effective and proven tools to make open and transparent government a reality. And that’s like seeing the sun break through the clouds.

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