Academic journal article The Public Manager

Improving Government Transparency Online: Citizen-Engaging Technology Can Make Government Data Available Online, Easy to Access, and Understandable

Academic journal article The Public Manager

Improving Government Transparency Online: Citizen-Engaging Technology Can Make Government Data Available Online, Easy to Access, and Understandable

Article excerpt


Democracy is founded on the principle that the moral authority of government derives from the consent of the governed. That consent is not particularly meaningful, however, unless it is informed. When government makes decisions in secret, opportunity for corruption increases and government's accountability to the people decreases. This is why we strive for transparency in government. When official meetings are open to citizens and the press, when government finances are open to public scrutiny, and when laws and the procedures for making them are open to discussion, the actions of government enjoy greater legitimacy.

Recent years have seen a renewed effort to increase government transparency in the United States. In the wake of the Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, and William Jefferson scandals, Congress moved once again to shed light on its own activities. Senators Barack Obama and Tom Coburn introduced legislation requiring the full disclosure of all organizations receiving federal funds through an online database operated by the Office of Management and Budget. The result was the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also pledged that after the 2006 congressional elections they would enact legislation to "restore accountability, honesty, and openness at all levels of government." The result was the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which requires that information about earmarks be published on a public, searchable Web site forty-eight hours before a vote can be taken on the bill containing the earmarks.

Disclosure Requirements

Unfortunately, many statutory requirements for disclosure do not take Internet technology into account. For example, the 1978 Ethics in Government Act re quires the disclosure of financial information--including the source, type, and amount of income--by many federal employees, elected officials, and candidates for office, including the president, vice president, and members of Congress. The act further requires that all filings be available to the public. One might imagine, then, that every representative or senator's information would be just a Web search away, but one would be wrong.

Members of the House of Representatives must file their disclosures with the clerk of the House, while senators must do the same with the secretary of the Senate. Each of these offices maintains a searchable electronic database of the filings. However, to access these databases, citizens must go to Washington, DC, and visit those Capitol Hill offices during business hours. No other means are available for searching the databases, greatly impeding widespread dissemination of nominally publicly available information.

Even when public information is available online, it is often not available in an easily accessible form. If data are difficult to search for and find, the effect can be the same as if it were not online. Also, to allow users to exploit the full potential of the Internet-to subscribe to data streams, to mix and match data sources-data must be presented in a structured machine-readable format.

For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent government agency with an active regulatory agenda that it manages via its online docket system. In theory, users of the FCC Web site are able to see active rulemakings, search for and read FCC documents and public interest comments filed by interested parties, and file their own comments. In practice, the site seems to be an exercise in obscurantism.

The dockets containing proposed rules and other official FCC documents, as well as public comments, are available on the Web site through a search form, but each docket contains neither an index of open proceedings nor indexes of documents. To obtain a list of documents in a given docket, the seeker must know the docket's number and search using that number. …

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