A recent ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court illustrates a common complaint of government agencies and bureaucracies, namely that they haven’t kept up with the expansion of technology.
The court ruled earlier this month that any requests for bulk electronic court case data–basically large downloads or exports of court record information–was now off limits. (Read my story here; the Tulsa World’s story is here. For more on the idea of bulk data downloads from government, check out Web guru Tim O’Reilly’s blog.)
Over the last few decades, Oklahoma county district court clerks have moved their case management systems from paper files to electronic formats. But there are two separate systems, the state-run Oklahoma State Courts Network and the privately run On Demand Court Records. They’ve each evolved over time in response to the needs of district court clerks across the state. There are 13 district courts–including the state’s two largest counties–covered by OSCN; 64 district courts have signed up with ODCR, which is operated by KellPro Inc. of Duncan.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling followed an open records request earlier this year by an Edmond-based firm, INAD Data Services LLC. The company requested electronic copies of all court case information for state district courts and the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Court.
The request appeared to have caught Supreme Court administrators off guard. They responded to INAD’s attorney with a letter in late July. The letter said some court information was confidential under state and federal law. It also said the Supreme Court would be asking the Attorney General’s office for advice. The Supreme Court Administrative Office’s general counsel, Debra Charles, said:
If I am satisfied that all or a portion of the records on OSCN.net can be released in bulk, you should anticipate paying a reasonable fee to search and reproduce all of the public records that can be appropriately segregated for public view. Please understand that, if the electronic records can be reasonably segregated, the cost of a system-wide search of this nature will likely be significant.
We’re still trying to figure out what happened in between that letter and the Supreme Court’s ruling Oct. 8 to forbid release of bulk records. But Oklahoma Chief Justice James Edmondson (the brother of Attorney General Drew Edmondson), sent a letter to INAD’s attorney and state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, dated Oct. 5. The letter, which was effectively a denial of the open records request, stated:
… Copies of all information, documents and electronic court records would encompass cases dating back to 1984 in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. During the intervening 25 years, the other 75 counties have moved to digital record keeping. This literally amounts to millions of pages.
In summary, everything you have requested can be readily accessed through oscn.net or is available on a case-by-case basis at any court clerk’s office in each of the courthouses in Oklahoma. We direct you to oscn.net for full and complete open access to court information.
Later that week, justices issued their ruling.
Justice Edmondson said Tuesday that the ruling was intended to cover only commercial requesters of bulk court data. Other requests, such as those made by noncommercial entities or the media, would be decided on a case-by-case basis, he said. But that’s not explicitly stated in the ruling.
Furthermore, Edmondson said the court signed a contract with KellPro to convert ODCR court case data in preparation for a single, unified Web site of district court information. The contract authorizes the court to spend up to $1.15 million this fiscal year for the data conversion.
Tim Keller, the founder of KellPro, said the contract covers only the data conversion. He expects the Supreme Court will put the work of the unified system out to a competitive bid once the data conversion is finished. In the meantime, KellPro is selling expanded access to court information to members of the Oklahoma Bar Association.
Since hearing about the Supreme Court’s ruling late Monday, I’ve had several conversations with attorney Doug Wilson of Stillwater, who specializes in electronic government information and data. Wilson said the ruling could raise constitutional issues, including one that forbids the state from granting a preference to one company over another.
To play devil’s advocate, I can see why KellPro would like to protect its system of court information. After all, the company’s employees spent time, energy and money pursuing case management system contracts with district court clerks across the state. For a company to come after the fact and request bulk information from their systems doesn’t seem fair.
However, the information isn’t KellPro’s in the first place. They developed the system and software, but the “ownership” stake of the records themselves lies with the people of Oklahoma, whose tax dollars fund the state’s legal system.
It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time the Supreme Court has gotten involved in Web access to court documents. In response to privacy concerns, the court issued a ruling last year that would have stopped online access to court filings across the state. They rescinded that ruling after complaints from the public, the media and open-records advocates.
New figures were released this morning on Recovery.org about the estimated jobs saved and/or created from stimulus spending so far. The numbers are coming from the first-round of information reported by contractors earlier this month.
In Oklahoma, the results are underwhelming to say the least. According to the site, Oklahoma companies have signed 120 stimulus-related contracts so far for $92.3 million. And the jobs created or saved? Just 202.
Nationwide, about 30,300 jobs have been created or saved so far, according to data collected so far. That’s not much considering the economy needs to be creating about 100,000 jobs each month just to keep up with population growth.
One White House economist, Jared Bernstein, said it’s still too early to say whether the stimulus is working as intended. But he pointed to “private estimates” as proof that many more jobs are being created.
“It is too soon to draw any global conclusions from this partial and preliminary data, as it reports on just $16 billion of the $339 billion in Recovery Act efforts before September 30th, but the early indications are quite positive. The direct count by Recovery Act recipients of jobs created or saved from this small percentage of the Recovery Act exceeds our projections. All signs — from private estimates to this fragmentary data — point to the conclusion that the Recovery Act did indeed create or save about 1 million jobs in its first seven months, a much needed lift in a very difficult period for our economy. We look forward to the much larger, comprehensive report due on October 30th.”
Just last month, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers put out its estimates of stimulus-related job creation in the first-quarter. Here’s the relevant table:
Buried deep in the report, the council says it used three methodologies to estimate job impacts by state.
None of these three approaches does a perfect job of measuring the geographic distribution of employment effects, and each has advantages and disadvantages relative to the others. Thus, to obtain a reasonable estimate of state-level job impacts, we use a simple average of the three approaches.
Of course, simply because their populations are larger, we estimate that larger states have seen larger jobs impacts. Similarly, because their employment is more cyclically sensitive, industrial states are estimated to have had larger employment effects relative to their populations. Finally, both because of their industrial composition and because state fiscal relief and aid to those directly impacted have been larger in states hit harder by the recession, we estimate that states with higher unemployment rates at the time of passage have seen larger employment effects of the ARRA relative to their populations.
The Washington Post has a good wrap-up of the expectations created, and the reality of reporting job figures, here:
… Others say the reports being released this month will underscore the challenge of trying to quantify the jobs being created. Initial recipients of the stimulus money, and any government or company that they pass it on to, must report how they use the funds and how many jobs they create. But the reporting requirements do not apply to additional levels of contractors who receive the money.
My advice is to treat those early job numbers as estimates and best-guesses, at least until we get more information later this month and in the months to come.
To find out who’s getting stimulus contracts so far, just check out Recovery.gov. Here’s a list of the Oklahoma contracts signed as of earlier this month, either by Oklahoma companies or for work to be done in Oklahoma. (We also have a link to the state government’s stimulus site on our Right to Know page, which includes other databases of local interest.)
The recession and lower tax revenues are crimping state and local budgets, so it’s good to see several policy groups are making it easier for Oklahomans to find information about their government spending and taxation.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute has just released its Online Budget Guide, a detailed look at state and local budgets in Oklahoma.
I’ve spent a little time checking out the site, and it’s certainly comprehensive. There’s a wealth of information, and the Oklahoma Policy Institute folks say they are committed to keeping the facts and figures timely and relevant. They plan to later add information about federal stimulus spending in Oklahoma and possibly details of state and local bond debt.
As Matt Guillory, executive director of the institute, puts it:
“We’ve designed the Guide to be a resource for anyone interested or affected by government finance in Oklahoma. Those just getting interested will find it to be a clear and simple overview, but it will also serve as a great reference tool for legislators, advocates, members of the media, teachers and others with greater experience in budget issues.”
The nice thing about the guide is that it also includes information on all types of money flowing into state and local coffers, not just sales, income or property taxes. For example, it has information on federal pass-through money, user charges, utilities and trust revenues.
On the expenditure side, the guide has a look at where the money goes and how effective that spending is.
“This is a look at not only what we’re spending, but what we’re getting in return,” said Paul Shinn, the institute’s consultant and the primary author of the guide.
The Policy Challenges section gets into the institute’s bread-and-butter advocacy for tax fairness in Oklahoma, as well as some long-term fiscal challenges that lawmakers will have to deal with in the future.
“We don’t pretend to have solutions, but we offer options,” Shinn said.
If you want the Cliff’s Notes version of the budget guide, you can download the highlights here.