State employee text messages should be public record

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum announced last week that text message communication by staff and officials working for the state would be considered public record.

The regulation includes all monitored text and Blackberry PIN messages that travel through the attorney general’s office server, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

PIN messages are e-mails sent directly from one Blackberry to another through the recipient’s personal identification number (PIN).

It is important that the state maintains its lenient public record laws to provide an open, transparent government that the public deserves.

The Attorney General’s Office is the only agency in Florida that will allow this. According to The News-Press, Gov. Charlie Crist’s office staff is barred from using text messages, and most state departments have implemented similar policies.

These agencies shouldn’t bar text messages for employees but instead should implement the public records policy.

In a press release, McCollum said, “The evolution of technology should be an asset, not an obstacle, to transparency and accountability. This policy will allow for both government efficiency and more open government.”

The discussion concerning messages as public records began in Tallahassee. Three staff members of the Public Service Commission (PSC) were punished for giving their Blackberry PINs to Florida Power & Light Co. lobbyists.

Since the agency had no policy on obtaining information transmitted through the phones, it raised suspicion that the type of communication purposely avoided state record-keeping, which tracks regular e-mail messages.

Florida Power & Light Co. has since asked for approval to increase its rates by $1.3 billion. If approved, the power company could raise rates for customers to bring in that revenue. This could possibly be related to text communications between PSC employees and the power company — messages that left no trace.

Since the incident, PSC has banned the use of text and Blackberry PIN messages for official state business. If text messages were public record at the time, this problem might not have arisen.

Government rules and regulations concerning communications and transparency should keep up with rapidly-improving technologies. Before allowing employees to use devices such as Blackberry phones, the government should implement a policy on how to deal with them.

Those in favor of banning text messaging say that public officials could just as easily communicate by e-mail, phone or face-to-face.

State officials should be able to benefit from the convenience of text messages. It is not always possible to access e-mail, for example, when one is traveling.

Text messaging can be easier and faster than e-mail and should be available for conducting official state business when necessary.

The state should look to the future to determine telecommunication laws within agencies as well. Because technology is increasing exponentially, video messages and other types of communication cold eventually surpass those sent as Blackberry PIN messages and text messages.

Florida should learn from this dilemma and ensure that all forms of communication used by public officials for state business are made public record.

Xhenis Berberi is a senior majoring in political science and economics.