Electronic communications occupy a very significant role in daily activities of state authorities. Accessibility of such kind of electronic data and archiving it must be regulated by law. At the same time access to e-information of state officials will be a very significant step forward to open government and transparency. Also, this will give opportunity to future generations to better understanding and research about the internal communication and decisions of state officials.
“When records are well managed, agencies can use them to assess the impact of programs, to reduce redundant efforts, to save money, and to share knowledge within and across their organizations. In these ways, proper records management is the backbone of open Government” – this is how the US President Barak Obama looks at record management in his new Memorandum for the Heads of the Executive Departments and Agencies on Managing Government Records released on November 29th, 2011 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/11/28/presidential-memorandum-managing-government-records. It is a significant commitment since the initiative started in September, 2011 when the White House put forward the Open Government Partnership as a National Action Plan for the United States.
This initiative will be developed in the close cooperation with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
According to the Memorandum each agency is required to report the name of a senior agency official who will supervise an agency-wide evaluation of its records management programs. These evaluations, which must be completed in 120 days, should be focus on electronic records, including email and social media.
Once the evaluations have been submitted, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Office of Management and Budget in coordination with the Associate Attorney General will have an additional 120 days to issue a Records Management Directive to agencies that will provide specific steps to reform records management policies and practices.
In a memo that recognizes emails, tweets and other ways of electronic communications play a key role in government decisions, President Barack Obama is directing agencies to improve their archiving of digital records. The experts and FoI advocates look at the memorandum that obliges the state authorities to move into the digital based records keeping system as the most significant steps since the Truman Administration to improve the management of governmental records.
This is a very clear message to Federal agencies about the importance of electronic records.
Open government advocates see the memo as a critical step in making even the most sensitive and valuable government communication — e-mail — available to the public. Everything will be saved in the governmental records, even the President’s Blackberry messages.
Practice of requesting and publishing of e-mails of high ranking officials in the United States was already established by the National Security Archives (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/). The Highest-level White House communications on the most secret national security affairs of the United States during the 1980s was published in 1995, after a six-year lawsuit brought by the National Security Archive and allied historians, librarians, and public interest lawyers. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/white_house_email/index.html#WHEM
The issue of e-mail transparency will make the government activities more transparent and this will support to better understanding the whole inside story of the government activities.
At the same time the state-of-the-art technological advances, especially the electronic communications put the governmental records management system in front of the new challenges – “…if records management policies and practices are not updated for a digital age, the surge in information could overwhelm agency systems, leading to higher costs and lost records” – we can read in the Memorandum. US President’s new initiative will not only promote to accountability and transparency, make governmental documents accessible to public, but it is considered to reduce administrative spending, make the record management more cost-effective by transitioning from paper-based records to electronic records and save the tax payers money.
At the same time in the United Kingdom it is widely discussed and Parliament might consider whether freedom of information requests are being too widely granted, following a ruling that they should apply to private emails and even text messages between ministers.
Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, talking about this issue quoted: “It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to freedom of information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the act covers all recorded information in any form. It came to light in September that this is a somewhat misunderstood aspect of the law and that further clarification was needed.”
As we see access to e-information is ne new trend toward better transparency, openness and at the same time to good governance. Therefore, when the government of Georgia does its best to follow, respond and develop democratic innovations and initiatives in the west, it is time to start thinking about establishing the system of electronic records management in the country.
How this issue is regulated in Georgian legislation, can e-information be considered as public information and can it be accessible and open? According to the Georgian legislation the types of public information are defined by the General Administrative Code of Georgia (Article 2)- Public information means an official document (including chart, model, plan, diagram, photograph, electronic information, and video and audio records), i.e. information held by a public agency, or that received, processed, created, or sent by a public agency or a public servant in connection with official activities ( Article 2, m). As we see, electronic information is also considered as a type of public information.
One of the best sources to check if state authorities in Georgia keep e-records is to find out if they have public registers. According to the General Administrative Code state authorities should register all public information in public registers (Article 35. Public register – All public information kept by a public agency shall be entered into the public register. Reference to public information shall be entered into the public register within two days after its acquisition, creation, processing or publicizing, indicating its title and the date of receipt of the information, and the title or name of the natural or artificial person, public servant, or public agency, which provided the information or to which it was sent). The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) has been requesting public registries from state authorities in the framework of the project “Public Information Database- www.opendata.ge”. Almost none of state authorities have their public registers which are defined by law (only several state institutions out of 150 to whom we applied with the FoI request had the public register). It is obvious that the governmental agencies do not register public information the way they are obliged by the GAC of Georgia. Accordingly, it is clear that they do not register electronic information: working e-mails. The IDFI team requested information about the working e-mails of certain period from the LEPL Data Exchange Agency (the state agency under the Ministry of Justice of Georgia) and in their response this state authority answered that no letter had been sent from the working e-mail of the Agency in this time period requested. It is worth of mentioning that IDFI has received the official mail-box of the Eurasian Transport Corridor Investment Center as an example of the register of electronically received and sent public information –
At the same time another sphere where the e-records shall be regulated is the archives. The law regulating the archival sphere in Georgia (Law about National Archival Funds and the National Archives) was issued in 2007 and it can be considered as a little bit outdated. The President’s latest order concerning the archives is about the establishing the LEPL “The Archive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs” in September 2011 and the law about the price of services offered by this state agency (October 2011). Neither of the aforementioned documents regulates the electronic records management.
As we see a very significant part of the public information created in public agencies – electronic information is not recorded. It is very important to keep and have access to such data and to have it archived.
The IDFI plans to continue its efforts to have access to working e-mails of governmental officials and to support to archiving and keeping public e-information by state authorities.
Also it is very important to emphasize that in the Memorandum the US President Barak Obama has required the Director of OMB and the National Archivist to consult with those inside and outside the government – including public stakeholders interested in improving records management and open government. We think that system of management of electronic records must be elaborated in a close cooperation with the competent civil society organizations and experts.
Giorgi Kldiashvili is director and co-founder of Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI). He holds a Master’s degree in Modern and Contemporary History of Europe and America from Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University and is currently professor of American Studies at the same university.