"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both."
James Madison, 1822
When James Madison wrote these words of wisdom in 1822, the majority of the world was still governed by monarchies which would have looked upon any public right-to-know as an utterly alien concept. Since then, the opening of government to "popular information or the means of acquiring it" has been a work in progress, from the wide adoption of "sunshine" laws in the 1970's, to the ever evolving list of informaton considered secret, classified, or "exempt from disclosure".
We all have encountered, personally or through the news, issues which expose the tensions between governmental accountabilty and the need to keep some information out of the public eye, ranging from Wikileaks to concerns about how to protect our own personal privacy. What we don't tend to hear about, however, is the role that records keeping plays in ensuring accountability.
When James Madison was alive, accountability was primarily seen as the development of laws through an open legislative process, the publication of those laws once passed through Congress and signed by the President, the holding of trials in open courts, and the scrutiny of these efforts by a vigorous and constitutionally protected press. The population of the United States was approximately 9.6 million people, the size of government was relatively small, and records keeping fairly informal.
Since then, the US population has grown over 30 times larger to approximately 311 million, and the scope of all of our institutions - private and public - have increased accordingly. And while we still rely on the institutions developed with the help of President Madison to hold our government accountable, the degree to which we rely on access to government records to ensure accountability has expanded with the scope of government and the amount of records being created.
Consider this: while its all fine and good to state that a record is accessible, what would happen to that access if there were no rules regarding how the record should be maintained? A record could be destroyed at any time, and accessibility would go down the drain. That's why most public records laws, including Oregon's, have a requirement that records be retained for certain periods of time, as outlined in a retention schedule or policy. These laws ensure the records are accessible when needed.
As a Records Administrator with over 30 years of experience in local government, I can honestly say that the main reason why a record may not be accessible when requested rarely has anything to do with malfeasence or an effort to hide something; more often than not it simply relates to poor records keeping practices.
Records don't maintain themselves. Yet our ability or inability to access them can have a profound impact on ourselves and our community. The admittedly "back office" routine of records keeping can have as much of an impact on that access as the laws governing access.
That's one reason why good records keeping matters: the degree to which you can hold your government accountable depends on it.
Dwight Wallis, Records Administrator