FOI Spotlight: Mobile apps and public access in Texas government

By Kelley Shannon
FOI Foundation of Texas
Executive Director

AUSTIN _ Two Texas House committees met Wednesday to consider how to make more government records accessible to the public through mobile apps.

The House Government Efficiency and Reform Committee held a joint hearing with the House Technology Committee and heard invited testimony from Texas state agency officials and a Florida state representative about how records are already being made available online and through mobile applications and how they might be in the future.

Throughout the hearing, the question of cost arose.

“The overlying theme is, it costs money to be transparent, and it costs money to have open government. It just does,” said Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, though he expressed support for mobile applications as a means for making records available. He asked witnesses about their knowledge of the “digital divide” and said even Texans who don’t have computers at home often have some type of smart phone. “That’s why it’s critical to have that app in place.”

Sherri Greenberg, a former legislator and now director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, testified that even with use of new technology some types of traditional information formats must be available. “It’s addition, not subtraction,” she said.

Greenberg, answering Gonzales’ question about computer access, said there are changing notions of the “digital divide.” For instance, she said, more senior citizens are now online than in the past and millennials and young Latinos who may never have had a landline telephone or a computer at home often do have a smart phone.

In other testimony, Mark Smith, director and librarian at the Texas State Library, told of his agency’s programs that make data and documents available electronically and noted that when the library receives Gov. Rick Perry’s voluminous gubernatorial records in early 2015 after he leaves office it will be “something of a game changer” in managing digital documents. The library expects to get some assistance from the governor’s office in creating a framework for managing those records, he said.