New England still in a digital ice-age

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doug cliftonBy Doug Clifton

These days, without so much as taking one step out of your home, you can shop, track the delivery of your purchases,  pay your bills, check your investments, read your newspaper – or anyone else’s, for that matter – look at a satellite picture of your house, trace your ancestry, even file your income tax return. You can do all that thanks to the internet and the digitization of all manner of information. But, oddly enough, in most states you can’t go online to find some of the most basic records your state and local governments produce.

Thanks to a 50-state survey sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the National Freedom of  Information Coalition we now know that most states have been glacially slow in joining the digital revolution. 

And the New England states are among the slowest. 

 

This reluctance to place unambiguously public records online undermines what could have been an unparalleled opportunity to open the workings of government to a vast audience of civically interested citizens. 

Before the digital age, if the interested citizen wanted to look at a public record he or she had to trundle off to town hall or make a trip to the state capital. The records being sought would be open for inspection but they were hidden from public view by a concept lawyers have come to call “practical obscurity,” records open by law but closed by inconvenience.

When the world moved to computers, government moved with it. Records that once existed only on paper developed an electronic life. The transformation happened so swiftly that virtually everything government did it did digitally. And that opened the door to putting those electronic records on line. 

It was a door few states chose to pass through, the ASNE/NFOIC survey demonstrates. 

Every state in the union posts some of its records on line. And every state uses the web to tout the accomplishments of its bureaucracy. But not every state swings the electronic door wide to give its citizens easy access to information that would make their lives simpler or make them better auditors of government service. 

The survey checked the online availability of  records useful for the citizen’s health and well-being and that of their community – death certificates, financial disclosures, audit reports, project expenditures, department of transportation projects, bridge inspection reports, fictitious name filings for businesses,  disciplinary actions against attorneys and doctors, hospital inspection reports, nursing home inspection reports, child care inspection reports, statewide school test scores, teacher certifications, school building inspections, school bus inspections, gas pump overcharges, consumer complaints against businesses, environmental citations and campaign finance information. 

Of the 20 records sought in the survey Vermont fared best of  the six New England states with 10 records available online. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire were next with 9 and Rhode Island last with 8. That placed the New England six in the bottom third nationally. Texas and New Jersey topped the list with 20 and 18 of the surveyed records available on line. 

The survey did not attempt to assess the ease with which a citizen might find the record or how user-friendly the record itself was. In Vermont, for example, campaign contribution records are available online but the search function is so antiquated that you are almost better off going over the records the old-fashioned way. And much information was so buried in the bowels of the website you needed an escort to unearth it. 

In Connecticut if you want to see financial disclosure records you must email a request, which is processed at the discretion of the governor. He decides whether you’ll get it. 

Rhode Island has an online data base of statewide expenditures but you have to be a state employee to look at it. 

Maine requires its public officials to file financial disclosure information and requires it to be posted online but the Secretary of State doesn’t do it. 

With the number of journalists shrinking daily, the role of newspaper as surrogate citizen is being undermined. That makes the availability of online records all the more important to citizens interested in the workings – and missteps – of government.That the public records laws in New England are shot through with exceptions and anomalies is obstacle enough to the civic-minded citizen. That this revolutionary technology is being so badly underused and – in many cases – misused is nothing short of outrageous.

Doug Clifton is the retired executive editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and was also executive editor of the Miami Herald. 

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