Freedom of Information: More sunshine -- easily and at no cost - Page 3

Technology can allow the city to take a huge step forward in public access -- right now

Certain employees — like the people who handle sensitive employee health records and certain litigators in the city attorney's office — could have software that defaults to a confidential server.

The added advantage, of course, is that the computers could also make a record of the title and date of every confidential document — and that information could be made public. If a dispute arose over whether the city was improperly withholding records, the public would at least know that certain documents existed.

All city files could be stored on network drives (not on local drives) with one location for default public files that would not allow overwriting or deletions and would be mirrored to a Web server and another drive for the few that may require redaction first.

4. Save all the old records. After a very embarrassing lawsuit that is threatening the Missouri governor's job, that state in January adopted an email retention system that preserves all email for at least seven years (based on federal requirements for financial records). And e-mail/instant message/text/fax retention systems are standard practice now in the financial industry (Morgan Stanley lost a $1.45 billion judgment because the company failed to preserve e-mail).

In fact, we all know storage continues to get cheaper and smaller — so San Francisco should abolish any retention timeframes for electronic records and keep them all into the foreseeable future. The world-famous Internet Archive is right here in the Presidio: I suspect that group would love to archive all the city information, and keep it online, free and forever.

When paper documents are part of the public record, they should be scanned and converted to text and posted within two days. This would include discussions between staff and individual members of policy bodies and the creation of the draft agenda and supporting materials as they are obtained.

All these methods would significantly reduce the number of public records requests to the city staff and thus save the city money.

5. Make calendars public — and keep communications public. Mayor Gavin Newsom won't provide detailed daily calendars — even after the fact, when there is no possible security reason for keeping his workday itinerary secret. All top officials should post their calendars on the web so the public can track what they are doing.

The city needs to adopt a global policy that city business should be performed on city devices (computers, email accounts, phones) whenever possible — and when city employees or officials use their own computers or hand-held communications tools, those should be forwarded immediately to the city system and made public.

San Francisco has one of the best local Sunshine laws in the country — and at a time when activists at every level are looking for ways to use technology to expand public access, the city should be in the forefront. All it takes is some political will.


Here are some more ways that the city could use technology to improve public access:

1. Use a program like to follow legislative changes.

2. Explore ways to bring nonprofits that perform traditional government services under sunshine laws.

3. Significantly improve the city’s Crimestats system (more real-time allow alerts for crimes near you) – google mashup et al. See

4. Embrace e-rulemaking technology – similar to federal rulemaking use technology to get ideas online and generate more participation for those who can’t show up in a meeting.

5. Require the Police Department to issue press credentials to bloggers.

6. Fund a few open-government lawsuits to expand the boundaries on access to public records (the law provides for attorney’s fees if the suit is successful).


Also from this author

  • Mayor Newsom's YouTube hypocrisy

    It appears the mayor just doesn't want anyone to see the sausage he's making