Transparent Bureaucracy

Born-open data provides a roadmap for state and federal bureaucracies.

Chance Layton

CounterCurrent: Week of 8/7/2023


Watchdog organizations, such as our own National Association of Scholars, rely heavily on state freedom of information laws (FOILs) to conduct research, sniff out wrongdoing, and provide citizens with a better understanding of their state institutions. In theory, FOILs allow citizens of a state to request records from state bureaucracies and receive those records in a timely manner. In reality, however, this isn’t so efficient.

Our colleagues at the NAS frequently file such requests, and are just as frequently stonewalled. Oftentimes FOIL requests sent to public colleges and universities are denied based on specificity. Other times, we are told to get lost—not directly, of course—through the high price tag of the request. It does cost staff time and effort to track down the sought-after records, but not to the tune of $8,000 (what the University of Nebraska–Lincoln charged for a recent request), especially when the same request at a similar institution (Georgia Institute of Technology) cost $46.12.

As adversity leads to strength, obfuscating public documents leads to new ideas for reform. In this week’s featured article, NAS Director of Research David Randall tells FOIL tales and showcases a new idea derived from the scientific reproducibility debate: born-open data and documents.

As Randall notes:

Scientists seeking to address the irreproducibility crisis of modern science have begun to put into practice the concept of “born-open data”—scientific records that are translated into a publicly accessible electronic format from the moment of their creation. Education institutions funded by state governments can and should put into practice the parallel concept of “born-open documents”...

This novel idea has birthed the Born-Open Documents Act, the newest addition to the Civics Alliance’s K-12 Civics Code.

The most important sections of this Act encourage transparency. New policies by K-12 schools and universities must be justified based on publicly accessible records and data—not testimony or evidence shared behind the curtain. Moreover, such new policies must be made publicly accessible. Public accountability, rather than administrative obfuscation, would thrive in such an environment.

Most important to the Civics Alliance, the Act bars public K-12 schools from using documents protected by “trade secrets,” such as curricula, that are not publicly available.

The model act would impose costs on school districts and universities. But such costs are already passed to the taxpayers, who must pay to access documents they have a right to examine. Why not make such documents accessible in the first place? As Randall writes, “If complying with a FOIA law really costs $8,000 per document request, switching to a born-open system will pay for itself in no time.”

Transparency is important. With the Born-Open Documents Act in the citizens’ corner, “Radical education bureaucrats would have to be bold, clever, and willing to martyr themselves for their woke causes—and there are not so many school administrators with the skills and temperament of James Bond.”

Until next week.


Photo by j on Unsplash

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