Letter to the Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton
Questions of Ethical and Professional Considerations of 2017 Policy Change
April 3, 2018
This is a letter I sent to Corey Stapleton, the Montana Secretary of State at the time. I sent the letter on January 16, 2018 because a new policy was at best inconsiderate and unprofessional of an elected official, and at worst was somewhere between illegal and costing the State of Montana several million dollars.
As I mentioned, I mailed this letter on January 16. On January 18, 2018 the letter was received from the US Postal Service by L. Gaines representing the Montana Secretary of State's office. On February 20, 2018, I called the Montana Secretary of State's office since I had not had any reply. The operator I spoke to was shocked that I had not gotten a response in a month and assured me that I would have a call that afternoon, though it may not be a complete response. On March 6, 2018, I called the Montana Secretary of State's office again, since I had still not heard anything - not even the call I was promised to receive on February 20. It is now April 3, 2018, and I still have received no response in any form from the Secretary of State's office.
It seems to me it is clear that Mr. Stapleton and his office have no interest in the concerns of citizens and business-people of the state of Montana, and that the Office is not concerned about helping businesses and may not be thinking through their "cost-savings" measures. This situation needs to be addressed, and Secretary Stapleton should be coming up with some basic, simple, customer service solutions to correct the current policy (or maybe he should start calling himself "Montana's Anti-Business Officer" instead of "Montana's Business Officer").
Whatever the cause of the creation of this policy and whatever the reason for the Secretary's non-response, it is clear that Secretary Stapleton is under the impression that the people of Montana and the businesses of Montana work for him, rather than the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State's office working for us.
January 16, 2018
Montana Secretary of State
P.O. Box 202801
Helena, MT 59620-2801
I am writing to you about the recently instated change in policy to "go digital" for the Secretary of State's Business Services. While there are benefits to making systems and processes available online to ease the experiences of some users and to streamline some processes, this needs to be done carefully to prevent problems and reduce security and privacy risks; and it can never be done exclusively, as this causes usability problems, compliance problems, and disenfranchisement. While I do not doubt that there was extensive consideration before this new system was implemented, it is clear that several key factors were ignored, and this is leading to deliberate (and possibly malicious) disenfranchisement among Montana business owners.
- Problem: Requires Internet Access
First, the new filing system requires businesses to have internet access. This cannot be assumed. Even in today's market, not all people have internet access. A MTN Television Network story aired January 8, 2018 stated that only 69% of Montanans have access to wired internet at all. And cell towers don't cover the entire state, and even in places where there is cellular coverage, there may not be capacity for data transfer. Furthermore, even where internet access is available, neither the State of Montana nor the Montana Secretary of State is providing internet access to all people in those areas. Therefore the Secretary of State is currently requiring anyone in the state who wishes to have a business, or keep their business in good standing, to purchase services from another, non-government entity. (And requiring them to purchase which they may not be able to use from their home or business, but may, instead, need to travel to another location to use the service.) This is, at best, inconsiderate on the part of the Secretary of State.
It was suggested that someone could use a computer from a public library, but this also has issues. To start, there is the inconvenience of having to get to a public library with a computer lab, and then having to wait for an opportunity to use one of the computers. In addition, there could be time limitations on use of the computers at such a facility which may prevent users from completing the task. Furthermore, there are a number of tasks that require a certain degree of privacy and security that should never be undertaken from a public computer or public network, such as those found in libraries, restaurants, or schools. These tasks include tasks like official government registrations. And, requiring a trip to a public library or other facility with internet access is an additional expense put on the business by the government, and not provided by the government. If this is to be upheld, the Secretary of State's office should be providing no-cost transportation for businesses to a public computer where they can unsafely submit their filing, as well as compensation for time lost due to travel.
- Problem: Requires Email Address
This online process also required the submission of an email address. This is absolutely unnecessary for any legitimate registration process, and is only done when an organization is collecting email addresses to start sending unwanted and undesired email communications. This was required in this case because an online profile needed to be created, but the email address was not used to verify the online profile, making the email address still unnecessary. In addition, the online profile was only necessary because the Secretary of State's office has decided to no longer accept filings other than those submitted online - a requirement that, as outlined above, is unnecessary and not available to all businesses in Montana. It is unprofessional to require this information of users, and probably also unethical. In addition, when the email address is required, there is no explanation of how the email address will be used and who it will be shared with, nor is there any option to request that the email address not be shared or that the email address not be used for any purpose other than password retrieval. This is against best practices, and unethical. It demonstrates that the Montana Secretary of State's office did not do sufficient research or give sufficient consideration to these processes when the new process was put into place.
It should also be considered that, while 20 years ago an email address was necessary to have internet access, that has not been the case for quite some time, and this is exemplified by the use of public terminals in places such as libraries, where a user can log on, do research, and log off without any need for an email address. This is another case of the Montana Secretary of State's office requiring people to purchase or acquire a service they may not have and may not want (and may even specifically want to NOT have). This, again, is definitely unprofessional and quite unethical.
- Problem: Click-Through Agreement
Before filing an annual report can be completed, the user must click a check box stating that they are authorized to submit the filing online. First, not all businesses should have someone authorized to represent the company officially online in this manner, and some companies should specifically not have someone authorized to represent the company online in this manner. This is actually a blocking point for some businesses, deliberately preventing some businesses from filing their reports. There needs to be a work around for this element.
In addition, this is a legal issue, as anyone can click this checkbox and claim to have been an authorized representative of the organization. This is a click-though license agreement, and in each case where these have been taken to court, the courts have consistently found that this is not a binding agreement, but rather an unread nuisance that needed to be clicked to clear a screen and proceed. For each business filing submitted with this on record, the Secretary of State's office does not know whether the person submitting has authorization to have submitted the form.
- Problem: Requires Credit Card
The only payment method accepted is via credit card. Not all businesses have credit or debit cards, and not all businesses want a credit or debit card. The requirement to pay by credit card is a refusal of legal tender and should be treated as such. People who offer to pay by check or in cash should be accommodated, refusal do to so on the part of the Secretary of State's office should result in the fee being waived or considered fulfilled by the Secretary of State's office, since it is that office that is refusing payment.
Your office will accept payment by check for those who walk in, but you still require them to complete the online form - using a public computer, which, again, should NEVER be done - and then use a Secretary of State credit card to make the payment online after accepting the check from the business owner.
The one part of my interaction with the staff at the Secretary of State's office that was in itself absolutely unprofessional and unacceptable was related to this issue. When I was on the phone with your staff trying to figure out how to complete this process without unnecessary tools or services, or unavailable services or products, your staff actually recommended that businesses without credit cards could just borrow a credit card from someone to pay the filing fee. Unless the Secretary of State's office in prepared to cover any and all expenses to an unrelated third party for the use of the credit card, such as interest, transfer fees, postage, and others, there is absolutely no excuse for a member of your staff to have suggested this option at all.
Another option that was offered was to go to a store and purchase a giftcard to use to pay the fee. This, again, is neither viable nor acceptable. That is another case of requiring additional services not provided by the Secretary of State's office at possible additional costs (if noting else time out of the office traveling) and inconvenience to the businesses in the State.
This process is very different from and online shopping experience, and cannot be compared to the online shopping experience. In the case of an online shopping experience, the user always has other options, from shopping locally so as to not have to create an account or provide an email address to a vendor. In addition, most good online vendors provide real-world options for their buyers - shop online and buy in the store or buy online but pay and pick up at the store. And in all these cases, we are talking about goods or services that the consumer or business wants to purchase, not processes and fees the business is required to process and pay to a government agency.
Providing an online process as an option for those businesses who want to take advantage of that process, and for whom it is a convenience and not a security concern is a good choice. Allowing businesses the option to pay by credit card if that is convenient and available is also a good choice. However, neither of these is acceptable as the only option provided for any legitimate or required government services.
It is clear that the Montana Secretary of State's office did not consider this change in procedure thoroughly, or that the intent of the Secretary of State's office was designed to intentionally cause hardship and difficulties for businesses in Montana. These issues need to be addressed, and they need to be addressed promptly. They should have been addressed before any business filings became due under the new system.
At a minimum, the Secretary of State's office should offer an apology for the problems caused by this system along with providing a means by which paperwork can be filed without internet access and paid for using legal tender without the requirement of a credit card. This step was a significant embarrassment for the Secretary of State's office and for the State of Montana.