For someone who disdained electronic communications and the resulting creation of public records, Gov. Rick Scott has seen the light -- the light of sunshine in government. The governor opened public access to emails among his key advisors with the launch of a website that posts communications in a fairly timely manner.
This comes in the wake of scandalous deletions of emails prior to his taking office, a violation of state law that is still being investigated. And, oddly enough, this follows the governor's once avowed distaste for email; he refused to establish an official email account for the first eight months of his term.
This is quite the seismic change, even though Scott has pushed for government transparency on many levels.
Journalists, bloggers and watchdogs could be counted on to submit freedom of information requests to government agencies in order to secure public documents -- sometime a laborious task with waiting periods that stretched beyond reasonable. Now anyone with a computer can peek into the inner workings at the highest level of Florida government -- to a certain degree.
Facebook, Twitter and smart phone messages will not be readily accessible since that presents a technological challenge. Still, state officials are required to retain and record those for public access upon request. We encourage the governor to post all of those as well, for total sunshine.
For now, the public can view email communications between the governor, lieutenant governor, their staff chiefs and deputies, and communications officers -- 11 members of Scott's leadership team. Those messages comprise 80 percent of the public requests for records.
This initiative, dubbed "Project Sunburst," can be accessed via www.flgov.com/sunburst with the user name and password of "sunburst." While emails will be posted daily on this read-only site, some will be up to a week old and some will be exempt from Florida's open-records law. The goal, however, is to place emails online within 24 hours of creation, which would give the public quick access to the inner workings of government.
Of course, this does not provide a total behind-the-scenes view of communications. Public officials loath to be too revealing will communicate in other ways over critical matters to avoid leaving a public record. But that's already occurring, an unavoidable part of government in general.
Regardless, Project Sunburst represents an improvement in transparency -- a remarkable step that benefits the general public. Barbara Petersen, director of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, put it well by noting that "providing real time access to email is a very positive and proactive step."
We hope this also represents a trend that will expand with additional transparency initiatives.