May 14, 2009

Making information hard to find should not be the goal

When searches through government records, it helps to have a guide. Some sort of map that guides your search to find what you're looking for. It seems, however, that the Seattle City Council feels that you don't need that guide.

Consider their decision not to index their public records.

Indexing is the process which gives order to an otherwise unordered mess of data. If you've ever used Google you have benefited from indexing. Prior to search engines like Google and Yahoo! you had to know the exact location of documents to find them. While most people would dread going back to that, the Seattle City Council doesn't seem too worried. They claim indexing would be "unduly burdensome." If they want a real example of "unduly burdensome" try being the lone soul attempting to find a particular public record without any sort of guide.

While this decision is bad enough on its own, the fact that the city council ignored the advice of the state Auditor, the state Attorney General, the state Archivist, and the Secretary of State who all supported the indexing of documents shows their abject lack of judgment.

So what can happen with this decision? Public officials can now claim that they don't have to respond to public information requests because the lack of an index makes finding data too hard. So basically you have them claiming that making an index would be too hard, and now that they have no index, finding the data is too hard. The mind boggles.

More than that, the city has opened themselves up to legal risks with this decision.

[W]hen Armen Yousoufian, a citizen, asked prior to an election to view King County records pertaining to the financing of the new stadium. King County claimed they couldn’t find the records and therefore couldn’t be held responsible for not making them available. Yousoufian took the matter to court and in multiple court decisions he won a judgment each time. The case went all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court, where Yousoufian won again.

This decision hurts transparency. Having an index of public records is vital to ensuring that the records can be found easily. Hopefully the Seattle City Council figures this out.