13.2 Nature of Public Record Information

Public-sector institutions are primarily responsible for gathering public-record information from other sources and for generating public-record information themselves. Each piece of information collected or produced by a public-sector institution has either a public or a private character. By definition, some information must be public. The clearest example is laws. Obviously, laws enacted by legislatures, signed by executives and interpreted by courts cannot be obeyed unless they are made public.

Conversely, some information has little or no significant public character. For example, public clinics treat patients who have no way to pay their own medical bills, but these patients’ medical records are considered private even though they receive care at public expense. In this case, privacy laws trump public records access requirements.

Although you cannot find the health records of individuals, that medical information is aggregated into data and statistics that monitor the state of public health at all levels of government. In each local community, contagious diseases and causes of death are recorded, tabulated and analyzed. Thus you have access to government-produced documentation about public health matters in the community, the state and the nation even though individual medical records are private.

Since it is impossible to commit to memory all the sources of governmental information, you have to learn how governments operate, how they produce information, and what portion of the information is available in public records, documents and publications.

In addition to general background on governmental operations, it is useful to maintain a file of material that is specific to your local area. Such a file should include organization charts of municipal and county governments; state government organization charts; the state versions of the Freedom of Information Act, open meetings and privacy laws; and contact information or web browser bookmarks for the public sector institutions you deal with most often.