The answer to transparency in Montana's government is easy; it's politicians who make it hard.
The state continues to drag its feet about preserving communications, specifically texts and emails, from public officials doing the business of Montana citizens. They'd like you to believe preserving email and texts is impossible in this digital age.
We're not sure why it's such a hard or nuanced concept to comprehend, but it's pretty simple. It just says that communications, presumably electronic ones, should be preserved for a certain, prescribed length of time. However, politicians from both parties want to make it seem more complicated than it is. That leads us to wonder: What don't they want us to see?
It's ironic that in last Monday's Billings Gazette, there was a story about Montana moving toward email preservation, and in a story right below that, a write-up about memos from the state budget director revealing possible cuts. One of those cuts being considered was eliminating a few permanent firefighting positions -- not something we'd guess public officials would willingly share unless compelled by law.
The irony, of course, is that without open and public records from state officials, we'd be in the dark about what kind of budget cuts those in charge would be contemplating. In other words, one story would not happen without the other.
However, Montana, like many states, continues to struggle with how to preserve mountains of mostly mundane email and texts. The electronic age which was meant to usher in a paperless society ironically created tons more of it. In other words, it preserved — in writing — most communications which would have otherwise been conducted on a phone, jotted down on a scrap of paper, or simply not said at all. After all, a lot of texts are inconsequential and exist because picking up the phone and sending a message was all too convenient.
This increase in communication has created a headache for state officials who have been used to only keeping something written, like a letter. Technology always outpaces practice.
We would argue that Montana, especially because of its state Constitution which allows citizens to observe the decision-making process as well as participation in governing, has an obligation to save all of it. That means all email and all texts.
Politicians whine about the sheer volume and they argue that someone should get to decide what is important, and what can be tossed or kept out of the public's eyes.
Here's why all of it must be preserved.
All of it.
We believe that emails, texts and some messenger services (think Facebook messenger) need to be preserved because they are the written record of deliberation for the government. Officials who want to get hung up on what service is being used, for example, a private email vs. a state-issued account, are arguing semantics. It is like a bureaucrat arguing that a letter isn't a letter because it wasn't typed on heavy-bond typing paper.
Yet, the format doesn't matter, it's the content. And that can only be judged when all the information is stored and preserved.
Sometimes, information doesn't become relevant or useful until years later when some other bit of information is uncovered or revealed. Therefore, purging some records without preserving them could have a terrible effect on transparency.
Government officials, for example Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, whose job includes preserving records of public officials, said the task is huge — and he's right. It's going to take a thoughtful approach, including discussion of how long some records are preserved, and whether all the records of every employee are saved. Those are legitimate questions that need answering.
We'd point out that with the advent of digital storage, finding room is no longer an issue. We don't need climate-controlled warehouses and reams upon reams of paper to make preservation happen. Instead, we need decent technology.
We just checked the ads in The Billings Gazette, and a 6 terrabyte external hard drive costs less than $200 at a local retailer. By our calculations, just one of those drives could store more than 20 million emails.
In other words, storage of electronic records is both cheap and doesn't take much space — certainly not the kind of warehousing that reams of paper would consume.
Other than the state's hit-and-miss approach to keeping these important public records, we're also concerned that the discussion could lead to the worst kind of decision, as epitomized by Stapleton in a recent interview with Lee Montana Newspapers.
Stapleton favors restricting the scope of Montana's law.
"We create so much information on a daily basis that didn't used to exist. We don't need to save all of it," Stapleton said.
That's exactly the problem, though.
We do indeed create a lot of information — especially on paper. However, it's also equally important that we maintain all of it because Stapleton or any other public official may not know when and if that information will be significant. If, as Stapleton said, Montana law is retooled and restricted, it will be the residents who pay because they cannot see what their elected officials are doing on the citizens' behalf. They cannot see what got preserved and what got tossed. We would have to simply trust that our officials are acting properly.
And that's precisely the purpose of public documents: You don't have to trust what your elected leaders are doing; you can see it in writing, with your own eyes.
If lawmakers or state officers were given the power to decide that some information isn't worth keeping, who are the people with that much power? Who gets to say what's important and what information can be trashed, nevermore to become part of the public record? We believe a system that allows for such human judgment would be very scary and open to abuse. Could picking which emails survive create a system open to political dirty tricks? Could an elected official delete items that may be damning to a friend? Or call attention to a passage in another that would damage a political rival? We also believe such a system would be imprecise, cumbersome, possibly unfair and time-consuming.
We agree that there must be some kind of sideboards or parameters. Most public records repositories have purging policies related to when and how records are disposed.
However, when it comes to information from your government: Always, always, always demand more.
-- The Billings Gazette