Many people in Hawaii may be surprised to learn that we have some of the best laws in the United States on public access to government records and open meetings. But as the Legislature recognized when it enacted the public records law in 1988, the law “is very much dependent upon the attitude of those who implement the law.”

Good transparency policies should make it easy for citizen groups and the media to investigate what the government is up to and to educate others about it. Imagine, for example, if the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation had provided detailed statements of how taxpayer dollars were being spent, rather than releasing mere fragments of information. Would the problems with its cost overruns have surfaced sooner? We think so.  

On paper, Hawaii acknowledges that open government is necessary to maintain the informed citizenry that is the foundation of a democracy. In practice, the state often struggles to live up to those ideals — and we all suffer as a result.

Torres redacted documents1. 20 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Many documents describing the Honolulu Police Department’s investigation into the February 2012 death of Aaron Torres in police custody were almost entirely redacted. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Our public access laws are intended to reduce the information disparity between government agencies and the public. But when agencies withhold information until it is irrelevant, or charge exorbitant fees to produce that information, it contributes significantly to public frustration with and distrust of government.  

Most people assume that transitioning from disorganized paper files to an electronic system would make it easier to find and produce information at little or no cost.  

Exaggerated Fees For Electronic Records

And in some instances that would be true. But thus far, agencies have not adjusted successfully to open government in a digital world. Indeed, one reporter was recently told it would cost $80,080 for her to gain access to some Honolulu Police Department emails.  

Even when cost is not an issue, agencies often make the process as difficult as possible. The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest has seen departments refuse to produce datasets (even though the same data was available on the agency’s website) or charge per page “copy” costs for a file that was simply dragged and dropped from a hard drive into an e-mail. Other agencies have converted electronic spreadsheets into lengthy PDFs out of fear that the requester will manipulate the data.  

Can you tell what this case is about?
Can you tell what this case (involving the Board of Water Supply) is about? 

If this sounds crazy to you, it does to us, too. Do we need to start crowdfunding public records requests in order to learn about our own government? Unfortunately, we fear that such stories will become all too familiar unless Hawaii’s transparency policies are improved.

First, agencies must stop charging fees for records sought by super-requesters — news media and public interest organizations who will educate tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of citizens about what they discover in government records. Second, government departments need to procure IT systems with an eye toward public access; after all, government data is public data. Third, Hawaii’s public agencies should disclose information electronically whenever possible, and in a way that is easy for citizens to interpret, without waiting for someone to request it.  

Discouraging Public Participation

Along with making information more accessible, improved transparency policies can also encourage citizens to participate in government. One simple way to achieve this goal here in Hawaii would be to require boards to post meeting dates and agendas on a state or county website. Yet a bill mandating these changes (SB 475) died in conference committee two years in a row — and only paper notices are currently required.  

Why shouldn’t citizens receive meeting notices by e-mail or be able to read notices and minutes on the internet? Why shouldn’t informational packets be available to the public prior to a meeting? If we are to have meaningful public participation, these reforms are essential.

Giving citizens advanced access to board packets is not the only way that the public could be better educated and encouraged to participate. Under current law, board members most likely are prohibited from discussing board business on social media. Yet Facebook, Twitter and blogs are all tools that could help influential policymakers communicate with the public.  

Allowing board members to share their thoughts through these widely accessible platforms would help the public arrive at meetings prepared to discuss specific issues.  

Demanding Better

Now is the time to bring together the stakeholders. Good government groups, community organizations, and engaged citizens all have an interest in setting the tone for transparency and public engagement in the digital world. We must demand that government agencies adopt the ideals and spirit of our public access laws.

Hawaii’s government is at a crossroads. It can cling to outdated practices or it can embrace the possibilities for truly transparent government that our contemporary age of instant communication allows. But now is the time to act. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to change.  

Anyone interested in these issues should join us, Professor Archon Fung of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, for a panel discussion at the UH Architecture Auditorium (ARCH 205) on July 7, at 6:30 p.m.

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