The Difficult Balance of Transparency and Privacy for Local Governments

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“Risk will never be zero so it has to be actively managed,” according to Jason Lally, data services manager for the city and county of San Francisco.

OAKLAND, Calif. — At the top of its public records request portal, the city of Oakland has a request of its own: “If you need Oakland, CA records that may have been previously released, please search past requests. You may find what you need!”

It’s fairly uncommon for a local government—or any government for that matter—to extend the boundaries of transparency to include information about the records that are being requested by the public, plus their status and the main point of contact.

But Oakland, using a public records platform called NextRequest, does just that. Responding to public records inquiries can be a time- and resource-consuming effort, which can be frustrating for not just the person responsible for processing the request, but the person seeking the information, including journalists. So it’s not surprising that some of the biggest supporters of proactively releasing information, datasets and other records to the public are those who have to respond to records requests, plus those inquiries that may end up duplicating previous requests.

“We only have so many people who work for the city of Oakland and this is not the only thing we work on,” Alex Katz, chief of staff for Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker,” said during a panel discussion at the Code for America Summit in Oakland. “We’re getting dozens every day and many of them take a significant amount of time. That is a challenge for every local government: handle the volume of questions and requests we get everyday.”

Releasing public records is a balancing act of transparency and privacy.

“With great data comes great responsibility,” said Reed Duecy-Gibbs, the co-founder and chief operating officer of San Francisco-based NextRequest, who moderated the panel discussion.

Katz and the other panelists—Eugene Park, deputy port attorney for the Port of Oakland, and Jason Lally, data services manager for the city and county of San Francisco—discussed some of the sensitivities that come with the responsibility of supporting transparent government practices within their organizations while protecting privacy.

It’s not always easy.

Lally pointed out that while most juvenile probation records are off-limits in terms of public disclosure, there’s related data that isn’t necessary shielded by law but could be used to identify individuals if it were released.

“These things are fuzzy, they are grey,” Lally said. “Risk will never be zero so it has to be actively managed.”

The grey area extends from responding to public records requests to a government’s open data program.

Officials at San Francisco City Hall developed an Open Data Release Toolkit that helps map out the questions that need to be asked and considerations that need to be weighed when evaluating whether certain government data should be released for public consumption.

“There’s this institutional muscle that needs to be built up because this is all still very new,” Lally said, pointing out that there still needs to be plenty of regular discussion within organizations about their public disclosure practices.

Lally cited the city of Seattle’s data privacy framework as another proactive initiative.

All the complexities and legal considerations can be challenging in terms of process. And, as stipulated by law, government officials also must be mindful of the clock when fulfilling a request.

“If the local government doesn’t have their act together, everything slows down,” Park said, who pointed out that “public entities are saddled in enormous transparency mandates.”

Moreover, Park said: “Transparency is huge, very burdensome, very important and isn’t going away,” which is something that needs to be regularly communicated to government professionals who may not be always as inclined to pull back the curtains on the work their organization is doing.

With public disclosure mandates, governments “both have to do the work and document how they’re doing the work,” Park said.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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