The Office of Public Instruction's social media accounts disappeared during the transition to a new administration, highlighting inconsistencies in how the state manages these public records.
The OPI Facebook and Twitter accounts under former superintendent Denise Juneau were managed by Juneau and her communications director, Emilie Ritter Saunders.
"Once the term in office expires, the pages essentially expire," Ritter Saunders said in an email.
She said social media is a vehicle linking constituents to public records rather than being public records themselves.
That's not how the state sees it. Montana's social media policy says "communication to or from state personnel through Social Media is likely presumed to be a public record."
Montana law defines public records based on content, not format. If a newsletter, email, or Facebook post contains information about government business, it is a public record. That makes the law flexible enough to cover new forms of public information created as technology and culture change — even accounts that mix personal and public use. That flexibility also can be a challenge for public officials who must actually manage the files.
The state does not have a centralized method to manage digital content as public records, and each branch writes its own guidelines. The manual for the executive branch says digital records like emails and social media posts must be retained and destroyed according to schedules in state law but does not provide specific steps on how to do so. That leaves each agency to decide for itself. For elected officials like legislators, the responsibility falls to them personally.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has said that Montana's records-retention policies likely are behind the times, although he questioned whether government could ever keep up with the pace of technology evolution today. Nonetheless, he said a lack of clear policy or consistency in following existing rules limits the public's ability to access records that show how their government is run.
"People are interested in policy; in political things going on; in communications between people who make decisions; and (records that) provide oversight so we don't have waste, fraud, or abuse," he said, noting that the public's right to know can interfere with the desire of leaders to sometimes communicate privately to craft unpopular but necessary deals or to talk out a thorny issue.
"We ought to have a discussion about meaningful retention of the right things," he said. " But it might be an uphill battle."
Thirty-one of the state's 36 agencies have at least one social media account; many have accounts on multiple platforms. Many department heads also have their own social media, which they often use to discuss state business. Most legislators use Facebook or Twitter to keep in touch with constituents back home, take stands on proposed bills, and track down free food offerings in the Capitol.
"It's kind of interesting. We're in a new age where social media becomes part of official work," said Dylan Klapmeier, communications director for Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen. "In this instance, the Twitter account and Facebook were operated under Denise Juneau's administration and privately held by her and her communications director."
Arntzen, a Republican, took over as superintendent of public instruction this month, replacing Democrat Juneau, who termed out.
"We have never had access to them, and OPI's IT department does not have any records of them," Klapmeier wrote in an email regarding the former OPI accounts. "Going forward, Superintendent Arntzen will be creating a new Facebook and Twitter account for the Office of Public Instruction with transparency so that they become the official OPI accounts and can be transferred to future administrations."
He said when OPI's new accounts are set up, that will be done using state email and state devices. Ritter Saunders said she did not know what email addresses were used to set up OPI's former Facebook and Twitter accounts.
A similar story played out in the auditor's office.
Kyle Schmauch, media specialist for Auditor Matt Rosendale, said Facebook and Twitter accounts under former auditor Monica Lindeen have also been taken down. Schmauch said he set up new accounts to function as Rosendale's official social media presence as auditor — "to make sure there's a bright line, or as bright as we can make it on social media."
"We talked about that, and Matt agreed it would be good policy to have two different accounts to make sure people know what's coming from the auditor's office and if anything campaign or other personal political activity comes from a different account," Schmauch said.
Schmauch said he talked about social media with Lindeen's communications staff before taking over, where he learned the previous Facebook and Twitter accounts would be taken down "to minimize confusion." He received the login information for the office's YouTube account.
"We're still in the process of reviewing the policies and procedures manual from the past administration to see what changes we want to make there," Schmauch said.
At the Secretary of State's Office, Spokeswoman Morgan Williams said they did not have access to the social media accounts created and used by Linda McCulloch and her staff. She said they are still discussing how to manage accounts going forward.
State governments have been slow to adopt transition and preservation strategies.
"Even though we've had electronic records for decades, it's not been that long. We used to call it social media 2.0. We're even past that now," said Utah State Archivist Patricia Smith. "Until the last five years, we still considered ourselves as working in a paper environment even though that wasn't really what was happening."
Nonetheless, Utah state policy includes guidelines about the use and retention of social media as public records, just like an increasing number of states around the country. National experts repeatedly pointed to North Carolina as a leader in developing a plan to preserve social media posts.
In 2012, the state became the first to capture the hundreds of thousands of posts made by more than 130 government social media accounts and, just as importantly, experts say, make them readily available on a public webpage.
At least one state agency in Montana uses the same software tool as North Carolina, although the resulting archive is not publicly available.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation uses social media to promote projects, highlight the work of partners such as conservation districts, post job openings, educate the public on emerging issues, and share updates about emergencies. The Facebook page includes a video of firefighters using a Blackhawk helicopter to combat the Holter Complex blaze, a news story about the Blackfeet Water Compact, and a photo of a golden field with the fun fact that Teton County was the number-one producer of malting barley in Montana.
All of those posts have been copied and stored using ArchiveSocial so future Montanans can see how this segment of their government interacted with the public and promoted its mission.
Other state agencies have policies not to delete posts but do not actively make copies of posts.
Helena attorney Mike Meloy, who volunteers for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, said the law is quite clear about what is a public record even if state policies about how to store records are not.
"The form in which information is held is irrelevant to the question of access," he said.
Although digital records often are easier to use in the moment, they can be more difficult to organize and store, especially because electronic formats enable more information to be created than ever was available in paper formats, said Tanya Marshall, spokeswoman for the National Association of Government Archives and Records Managers.
"If you look back 50 years, we had file clerks and secretaries who did records information management with paper. There was less of it, but it was much better managed," she said. "All these technologies are supposed to automate and make everything efficient, but we lost the management aspect of records information management."
Computers and subsequent technologies changed the way people think — or don't think — about preserving digital documents. Scrolling down an endless page of Tweets or never clearing out an email inbox is not the same as actively organizing and managing paper records.
In some ways, social media has increased the transparency of government in action, even if it remains unclear what is the best way to preserve those records.
"It helps us do our job," Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, said. "Particularly when we're such a large geographic state, we can communicate in real time with constituents about what's going on in the Capitol, so it certainly makes the Legislature more accessible to the general public. They can follow us on Twitter and Facebook."
Although Smith was one of the first to use Twitter to broadly share her thoughts about proposed laws as they were being debated, many legislators, media members, lobbyists, and others now make dozens of social media posts each day, providing people outside the Capitol a glimpse at bill debates, legislators' thoughts, and party dynamics. Many others use Facebook, discussing ideas with supporters and urging them to testify at upcoming bill hearings.
Conversations also happen outside the public's immediate view.
Smith and other legislators said they text each other or send private messages on apps like Twitter. They coordinate questions for bills, make lunch plans, and tell colleagues when caucuses will be — meetings where legislators meet with fellow party members to strategize and that are open to the public but not noticed in advance.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, said some constituents and government employees who worry about being reprimanded prefer to send her private Facebook messages. They are generally viewed as outside public scrutiny, unlike emails that are routinely released under open-government laws.
Fielder said she did not feel as though legislators have clear guidance about which kinds of digital messages might be public records and what they should be doing to keep such messages to comply with state law.
"All of that is like the Wild West frontier," she said. "There's really no clarity."
Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued governments must work out how to manage new forms of digital records properly.
"People conduct their duties in different ways, and that changes over time, right? Perhaps once we did everything with forms and notes and memos on paper. Increasingly, we do everything electronically because it's faster and better," he said. "Just because we're changing to an electronic medium doesn't alter the legal issue of the fact the public has a right of access and a right to know how the government is working."