The National Law School of India University has embarked upon a two-year research project on Digital Public Records. The project is supported by Thakur Foundation, and will focus on research, engagement and policy advocacy to chalk out ways in which accessibility and transparency of public records can be improved in India.
A key vision in the Union Government’s Digital India programme is ‘Universally Accessible Digital Resources’. Although the vision documents discuss open formats and interoperability, by focussing on resources rather than records, this articulation elides the question of the legal status of public information, and whether the government is obliged to provide accessibility across a range of data.
Despite the existence of specific laws and policies, much work remains to be done before India can boast of meaningful access and use of public information to improve public accountability. In the absence of a normative framework that addresses the status of public records in the digital era, practices across government agencies have naturally varied widely. As a result, sharing of such public records largely fails to meet substantive goals of transparency and accessibility.
Noting the fact that openness in digital government requires intervention from different fields and perspectives, the project will conduct an interdisciplinary conference involving people who work on these issues in different fields – archivists, historians, public policy scholars, civic tech and right to information actors, as well as data platform builders from public and private institutions. Their perspectives will help shape the agenda for the researchers in this project. Follow-up events will be conducted at the midpoint and end of the project as well with the same set of participants.
The project also intends to publish a series of papers taking a deep-dive into the practices of the executive when it comes to record keeping. The focus will be on practices, policies, notifications etc. at the Ministerial or Departmental level, which form the most direct basis for government’s handling of records. For this series, government records will be classified into broad categories, such as
- Records that are legally public, such as subordinate legislation, public orders, policy documents, circulars etc.
- Financial records
- Internal government communication
- External government communication
With these inputs, the project intends to develop a draft framework law that harnesses experiences and approaches within and outside India, and attempts to clarify the legal status, standards and executive obligation with respect to public records in India.
The project will also explore ways in which public tools and datasets can be built as demonstrations of the recommendations made. Efforts will be made to collaborate with interested institutions in this regard.