Making public records public

By The Madison County Record | May 17, 2009

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

That's been our mantra at the Madison/St. Clair Record, where we've reported on the public record for nearly five years.

We're interested to hear that Attorney General Lisa Madigan believes state government should do a better job of making public records public. But we need to hear more.

Madigan is pushing a bill in the state legislature that would reform Illinois' Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It aims to speed up the process, eliminating some of the excuses bureaucrats use to deny document requests.

Call her reforms potential baby steps-- ones that will read well on her campaign mailers next spring. If Madigan, who aspires to higher office, truly wants to let the sun shine on state government, she'll need to go further.

Consider that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which requires citizens to request public documents from their government, is something of a relic in this digital age. When the statute was created in the 1980s, today's computerized world of instant access to everything, everywhere, was the stuff of science fiction novels.

In those days, government records were kept on paper, stored in a metal file cabinet. And distributing records to the public required lots of bona fide hard work--work that cost real taxpayer dollars. FOIA provided citizen access but also had reasonable limitations: if those bureaucrats spent all day publicizing the workings of government, nothing else would get done.

That was then. Now documents and data of government are stored in modern computer databases, distributed by email and analyzed using modern software systems.

The typewriters and file cabinets are gone. So is the bogey man of a bureaucrat's burden. It's nearly effortless for state and local governments to make information public in 2009--as easy as click and send.

It begs the question for us: why are the people still required to ask?

Real FOIA reform would require state and local governments to be proactive about putting public records online for all to see. State agencies and municipal governments, for instance, would be required to post on a timely basis a register of all checks cut, all hires made, all contracts signed.

Putting this information on a web site should be standard practice, not something someone does to oil a periodic squeaky citizen wheel.

The reality is that today we must accept the sporadic muddle of public records our government chooses to give us. The present system guarantees the best budget watchers and critics never clearly see the whole picture. For many politicians, that's the point.

Born of the Chicago Machine, Lisa Madigan desperately wants to convince Illinois she isn't of it. She'll have to seek far deeper reforms to convince us of her true desire for open government.

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