Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL223.PRB - Disappearing Government
While political scientists and long-time Missouri statehouse observers have bemoaned the loss of institutional memory arising from legislative term limits, there's another institutional memory loss that has arisen during the same period.
There's a surprising reason -- the digital era.
I was reminded of that danger this summer as I've been updating the online state government databases of Missouri Digital News (http://mdn.org).
One of my latest projects has been to preserve at MDN the veto letters from past governors that explained their vetoes.
But all I could find online from the executive branch were Gov. Jay Nixon's veto letters. Like previous governors, the website of Nixon's predecessor was removed when he took office.
Even worse, most of Nixon's online veto letters are just scanned images of his letters. That format makes text functions like searching and copying text nearly impossible.
Some of the letters from earlier years are in the proprietary PDF format that complicates and restricts some normal text functions.
Unlike the Senate, Missouri's House has preserved and provides online links to veto letters. But they're in the same format as the governor's online letters. And the House links for many of the veto letters prior to Nixon no longer work.
Legislative journals eventually will contain the governor's veto letters -- but not until the legislature meets after the veto. So most of Nixon's summer veto letters will not appear in a journal until the September veto session.
And those journals are in the same PDF text-restrictive format as some of the governor's online veto letters.
The House provides another example of the precarious nature of online, digital data. The House recently removed links to the online biographies of former legislators.
So, if some historian or reporter wants to get the House biography of the House speaker driven out of office for sexually-charged text messages with a female college intern, it won't be easy.
John Diehl's biography is gone from the House website.
This issue extends well beyond legislative actions. It includes the very heart of democracy -- the actions of voters.
Election returns are preserved by the Secretary of State. But during a recent transition in that office, online links to election results beyond the last election had evaporated for several months.
Some of this digital information is replicated in the online official state manual, the "Blue Book." But it's a massive file that takes time to download and is in the restrictive PDF format.
State law does restrict actual destruction of government records and state law does require that the records be accessible to the public.
But there is no requirement for digital online links. So access can require a lengthy trip to a state agency after a lengthy process of getting access permission.
I should note there are some tremendously informative online sites. The legislature has a superior system for tracking bills and amendments, particularly the House.
The administration maintains an "accountability portal" where you can pull up financial information including tax credits and the salaries of state government workers.
My summer frustrations about veto letters reminded of the concerns voiced by a dear colleague and friend, David Valentine -- a faculty member of the University of Missouri school of public administration after serving years as the director of Senate Research.
As I've written before, David was worried about how easy it is for the online links to historical digital data of state government to get lost -- making the information nearly invisible.
David argued that the old format of printed documents provided a stronger assurance of preservation and ease of public access. Some printed documents, like the Blue Books, had been distributed to libraries across the state.
David thought that the state laws ought to require some sort of online linkage.
He talked about the value of requiring government to facilitate storage at multiple, independent locations. And, we discussed how non-searchable formats, like PDFs, should be prohibited for government's long-term storage.
My conversations with David are the reason I now spend my summers trolling Missouri government websites for information that soon could evaporate from easy public access.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.