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For Better or Worse
The Control, and Release, of YOUR Information

In these days of diminishing stature for the US on the world stage, it’s nice to hear we’re still number one at something: "The US leads the world in terms of disclosure, largely because they legislated early and quickly following the Enron debacle, providing a new level of transparency in government."

The speaker is Glyn Williams, CEO, Onstream Systems Ltd., and as a New Zealander and international businessperson, has tacit permission to remark on the US’s world stature from a relatively outsider position. Onstream, in partnership with TOWER Software, provides tools that regulate and control the release of possibly sensitive information from government websites and such. And, according to Glyn, the demand is higher than ever.

"We help government agencies control the release of information in a systematic way," Glyn explains. "But before you can release anything publicly, it’s important to have your INTERNAL records in good order. You don’t want to have a document you didn’t know about turn up following a discovery or an e-FOIA request. The disclosure laws are quite specific about that," he says.

"The public expectation for transparency from the government has been growing worldwide—What information do you have on me? Who else has it? For one example, people would be staggered to realize that the states are selling personal information to email and sales-and-marketing companies," Glyn states.

But the fact is: Accumulating information is an unavoidable consequence of governing. The stuff just piles up. "Governments have been collecting information on a more or less ad hoc basis for years. It’s all stored in hard copies somewhere," says Glyn. Only now, the various agencies and departments realize that all this stuff is part of the public record. And the public realizes it, too. And therein lies the rub.

"Thanks to the Internet, people now expect to have almost immediate access to information of all kinds. It used to be that you had to go down the clerk’s office and requisition information. There was a process," he says. And a painful process it was.

Then—attributable I suppose to various media events—the pendulum has swung wildly between "transparency" (as Glyn refers to it) and "control of release" (as, coincidentally, Glyn also refers to it).

"Government agencies started putting information on public portals. Now the population is demanding this level of transparency," Glyn points out. I couldn’t help but ask: Why did the agencies do that? The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) may have made it a requirement to provide access to citizen information...but nobody ever said it had to be easy access.

"That’s true," says Glyn. "But the expectation level is so high in the private sector." This, Glyn agrees, is thanks to the access that public search sites have provided. Citizens naturally expect the access to their personal information—or that of a public official or even the executive of a publicly held company—to be as easy as their next Google search.

To a degree, the transparency Glyn talks about is the direct result of the technology that allows it in the first place. In other words, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. How, I wondered, do government agencies know whether they are providing the correct degree of access? "The metrics for success for government," Glyn starts, "are largely determined by law. For example, you can’t release a social security number into the public domain. This has created a job, particularly in state governments, of digitizing and storing information in document management systems, so that it may be redacted and released on demand. The success is measured by whether they can provide public access to records, and still ensure that truly private information is kept private."

With that kind of mandate, will public portals be able to remain up and running, but still protect your privacy? "That’s a big question in government right now," says Glyn. "In fact, some of the states have taken down their public portals. But there’s enough demand for public access that this is not considered a long-term solution."

We’re joined by Krista Curtiss, the marketing director for TOWER Software NA. "Just like everyone else, bettercheaperfaster is attractive. The agencies are working with limited resources, and they don’t have time to rifle through paper documents any more than the constituents do. The other thing is: their report card comes up every election. Certainly, a county, state or city doesn’t want its name all over the papers because something ‘got out’ that shouldn’t have. So everyone’s reputation is at stake," says Krista.

"There are other consequences to government agencies," Glyn adds. "For instance, they have a FOIA audit every year. They have to report when every document was released, what was taken out of it, when it was taken out... A lot of the functionality you find in document management systems has come about due to the need to be accountable about what’s being released to the public. And the more the public demands, the more that will be released. And the more nervous people will become about what’s being released...particularly from the military and security agencies." It’s unclear what THOSE consequences might be, but, as Glyn notes, "it must be serious, because they are quite twitchy about getting it right."

What’s Next?
Glyn: "We’ll see an enormous amount of new regulations coming out of the sub-prime debacle. Expect some amazing new laws regarding transparency and regulation. Document management systems will be essential just to manage the load."

Krista: "There’s an industry growing up around FOIA, and there’s beginning to be a lot of interaction among agencies. They want to stop reinventing the wheel. So if they find a successful program, they want to proliferate it and standardize on it. There are a lot of ‘best practices’ going around that are driven by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) because of the cost impact. We’re down in the deficit hole again; we’ve got to be looking at these types of solutions." 

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