Connecting state and local government leaders
Responding to records requests quickly builds public trust.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — I served as the chief information officer for the City of Tallahassee for more than a decade before becoming an independent consultant to local governments across Florida. In my experience, there are few actions more valuable for local government CIOs than automating their compliance procedures.
Local governments must be prepared to respond to public records requests from constituents in a timely, transparent manner. Such responsiveness is the only way to build public trust for continued funding of government agencies and services. For example, recent allegations of email cover-ups by public officials in Flint, Michigan, have only deepened citizen mistrust over the scandal there, due to the city’s polluted water system.
Emails are not the only area for concern, however. Increasingly, local governments are responsible for archiving and producing a wide range of digital communications. These include social media feeds, blog posts, text messages, instant messages, videos and any other digital content that has a direct bearing on government business.
I recently conducted an informal verbal poll on this topic with some CIOs around Florida who I know. When faced with the question of whether they have policies to archive digital communications or not, the responses fell into three main camps.
The group in the worst position involved organizations that simply ignore this concern. These organizations lack the necessary time or funding to build effective platforms for digital archiving. As a result, they ignore compliance policies for text messaging and other digital formats.
The second group has implemented policies to manage compliance, but the organizations push responsibility for compliance onto their employees. These organizations say it is the employee’s duty, not the city’s concern, to enforce archiving policies. This approach can be undermined by employees who fail to enforce policies, either out of neglect, apathy or misunderstanding. In most cases, processes and technology are the easy part; the hard part usually involves people because people don’t always do the right thing, even when they try.
Then there is the third group of organizations that invest the time and resources to build a comprehensive archiving platform that can automate the steps for digital archiving and retrieval. In this way, organizations no longer need to depend on employees to archive their electronic communications because the process is done automatically. The city of Clearwater, Florida, is a great example of a city that has deployed technology that tracks municipal text messages and social media related to government business communications.
The cost of implementing such a solution can be significant, which presents a barrier for cash-strapped governments. However, the alternative is much, much worse–being exposed as a non-compliant local government that is unresponsive to constituent requests for public records.
That outcome can result in costly lawsuits if governments are not able to produce records under the Freedom of Information Act or state sunshine laws. Penalties can far exceed the cost of investing in a solution to automate records retention. The Department of Justice has already served 299 FOIA lawsuits this year, compared to last year’s total of 112 lawsuits, according to data from FOIAproject.org.
Personnel time spent on retrieving records, or legal and e-discovery fees to sort through records, can take their toll, too. Failing to retain these types of records can also damage the public’s faith to fund government agencies with tax dollars, making it harder to manage policies and enforce rules going forward.
In other words, making an upfront investment in digital archiving automation can save an organization tens of thousands of dollars over time, while making its job much easier and more productive. Let’s consider a classic scenario which happens in every election cycle, when watchdog citizens file public records requests to dig up information on incumbents whom they want to unseat.
Those types of records requests usually require organizations to devote one or more staff members to reload the data store for data discovery to find relevant emails. This can take days or even weeks. As a result, those IT employees are pulled off other responsibilities, creating a larger project backlog for the IT department.
Modern archiving platforms can actually start saving a government organization money almost immediately because advances in technology have made the platforms so easy to use now. Because of this, organizations can designate an employee who can perform records searches themselves with better results, improved security and a tighter workflow. This approach produces the information much faster than traditional methods, which increases confidence for city/county managers.
There is one other important benefit of comprehensive, automated archiving. When people know their communications are being captured for future retrieval and review, they are much less likely to put things in writing that would embarrass the city or county.
When I was a CIO, I told my employees not to put anything in writing that they wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper the next morning. Electronic oversight of everyone’s emails caused powerful changes in behavior.
Archiving official government communications produces greater transparency that will be critical to preserving citizen support for the funding of local services. Equally important, taking steps to automate the archiving of government email, social media, text messages and other types of content reflects the core mission of government: to serve the public interest.
Don DeLoach is the President of DDGov Consulting, LLC, and the former CIO of the City of Tallahassee, Florida, from 1998 to 2010.