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PAR Says State Must Act Quickly to Stop the Erosion of Open Government

The state must act quickly to stop the erosion of open government caused by new technology, the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) warns in a new report, “Louisiana’s Sunshine Laws: The Promise and Peril of New Technology.” Advancements in digital communication have increased the amount of public information and the speed with which it is disseminated, but new questions have emerged over what constitutes a public record (e.g. e-mail) and how meetings may be conducted. “Government efficiency has grown with the ease of using electronic information, but so has the potential for privacy invasion and public record destruction,” said PAR President, Jim Brandt.

PAR’s latest report focuses on new issues that have arisen due to developments in technology including e-mail, Web sites, archiving of public records, e-government, privacy, biometric identifiers and videoconferencing. A July 2002 report entitled, “Louisiana’s Sunshine Laws: Technological Change and New Fears Challenge Open Government” updated the actions taken on PAR’s recommendations made in a 1998 report and highlighted those areas where little or no action had been taken.

Some of the key recommendations for strengthening the state’s sunshine laws include:

E-Mail. The broad use of e-mail has made it an important communication tool, but the ease of deleting messages and confusion over its status as a public record make it one of the bigger technology challenges. Because most state and local agencies are operating without approved record archiving policies, many public records are being destroyed. E-mail also gives members of public bodies the ability to conference electronically and form a consensus on issues outside of the public=s view.

Amend the definition of public record to include e-mail to overcome any confusion over its status.

Require the Louisiana State Archives and the Office of Information Technology to immediately post guidelines on the management of electronic records and update the records management handbook.

Prohibit public bodies from using technological devices to circumvent the open meetings law.

Web Sites. Web sites are an important tool for widely distributing information as they are broadly accessible and can be updated with relative ease. Like e-mail, the rapidly expanding use of Web sites by government entities to transmit information must be addressed in the sunshine laws both to prevent abuse and encourage use. Information posted on Web sites must be managed as any other public record.

Amend the definition of public record to include Web site information to overcome any confusion over its status.

Continue to require the publication of legal notices and other governmental information in official journals, but also encourage publication on agency Web sites and on the Louisiana e-government portal, the official gateway to public information in the state.

Prohibit public bodies from charging fees for access to information online.

Require public bodies to post public information such as meeting notices and minutes on their Web sites, if they maintain one.

Privacy.With the expanded use of the Internet, concerns over citizens’ right to privacy have sharpened. As more public records are accessible online, problems linked to the release of personal information, such as identity theft, have grown. Technology provides new tools that may catch criminals but also threatens privacy by profiling citizens based on physical characteristics or biometric identifiers.

Require public bodies to review data collection policies, and allow only the collection of personal information necessary to conduct agency business.

Allow citizens to review and correct erroneous personal information conveniently and with no charge.

Exempt certain personal information (e.g. Social Security numbers) for all citizens from the public records law.

Prohibit the sale and distribution of biometric identifiers for any purpose without the consent of the person being identified.

Videoconferencing. Advances in technology have greatly improved the ability to meet from remote locations without sacrificing the objectives of the open meetings law. Videoconferencing, which allows participants to both hear and see each other, offers the best solution for meeting when all participants cannot be in the same location. Citizens and members of public bodies located in the far reaches of the state can be engaged in important policy decisions without having to travel great distances sacrificing time and resources.

Allow all public bodies, except the Legislature, to meet through videoconferencing on a limited basis subject to several safeguards that include:

Prohibiting members attending from a remote location to help form a quorum.
Requiring a majority of members to be located in the same location.
Protecting the public’s right to attend, hear and speak as though it were any other meeting.
Although new technology provides citizens with new tools for observing and participating in government, the benefits may be lost when state laws and policies do not keep pace with changes. Records that once left a paper trail can be easily deleted, and public meetings may be conducted outside of public view more efficiently. The expansion of access to government records must be developed to ensure that information in digital format is no more fleeting than that on paper while also protecting the privacy interests of Louisiana’s citizens.

Louisiana has a strong foundation in its current sunshine laws, but the laws need to be adapted to address the demands of new technology. “Action must be taken to prevent the loss of public information and to enjoy all of the potential benefits technology offers,” said Brandt. Clearly, it is time to make those changes that will strengthen the law and provide answers for future challenges.

Copies of the complete PAR report can be obtained for $3 each from PAR (P.O. Box 14776, Baton Rouge, LA 70898-4776; phone 225-926-8414). A copy of the report is also available at no cost on PAR’s Web site at www.la-par.org.
For More Information Contact:
Jim Brandt – President
225 926-8414 (ext. 21)

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