The 83rd Texas Legislature took steps to open up government at the state and local levels with two new laws that could set a precedent in making legislative communication open by default.
One of the bills passed (SB 1297) will make Texas the first state to allow state- and local-level officials to use online message boards for communicating between official meetings, according to My San Antonio. The message boards, run by the government bodies using them, will be updated in real time. Archives will be accessible and searchable to the public for six years under the new law, which goes into effect Sept. 1st.
This move, indeed a first of its kind from what we can tell, seems poised to set a new precedent for how public officials’ communications are regarded and disclosed, giving Texans an important level of insight into the decision-making process between official proceedings. It also opens up options for the decision makers, who had previously been banned from communicating among each other between official meetings. It’s an experiment that, if successful, we hope more states will examine, as most online accessibility to state legislative proceedings is spotty, at best.
Of course, the strength of a policy, transparency-related or otherwise, lies in its interpretation and implementation, and we’ve seen plenty of cases in other states where government officials have tried to thwart public records requirements by communicating about public matters on personal email accounts.
Thankfully, Texan lawmakers were paying attention, too. Citing a fear that creating the online message boards would just encourage more private communication about public matters, Texas approved a second bill that could act as a perfect transparency complement. SB 1368 amends the law to clearly state that electronic communications sent by public officials about government business are defined as public information — whether they are sent on personal or government accounts. As the executive director of an open government group in Texas explained, it had already been ruled that these kinds of messages are public information, but the newly passed law will help solidify that standard and close the loophole for those looking to get around disclosing conversations related to government decision making.
These two new laws in Texas apply several best practices of open data policies: they set the default to open for communication between public officials and require public information to be posted online in a timely, searchable format.
We’re glad to see Texas make these important updates to how it defines and shares public information, and for seizing an opportunity to bolster the Texas Public Information Act (originally passed in 1973), instead of letting the gray areas to public disclosure grow grayer.
We’ll have to see these new laws in action to better judge their strength, but we are excited to watch how they unfold. At their best, these laws can serve as strong examples for other state and local governments to open up the governing processes to the public, and we’re eager to see other governments iterate on these policies.
This good transparency news out of Texas is one of several encouraging open government developments we’ve seen around the country this year, from an open meetings win in Atlanta to the averted public records disaster in California. We’ll continue to watch for news on the local open government front and share with you here.