States Releasing Information Online that Can Ensure Public Official Accountability

3/20/2012

On March 19, OMB Watch released a new report that evaluates state and federal websites designed to ensure the accountability of public officials. The report, Upholding the Public's Trust: Key Features for Effective State Accountability Websites, examines state efforts to release public officials' integrity information online. Such transparency is crucial to guard against self-dealing and patronage. While states and the federal government have made progress in this area, more work lies ahead.

Transparency can deter corruption and guard against ethical conflicts. It is impressive that the federal government and so many states are disclosing so much information about elected and appointed officials online. However, the quantity and quality of disclosure is uneven.

Background

The OMB Watch report was inspired by the State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. The State Integrity Investigation ranks each state on its risk of public corruption by examining more than 300 measures of integrity policy and practice, including online disclosure. The inaugural State Integrity Investigation was published on March 19.

As an independent companion to the State Integrity Investigation, OMB Watch developed our report to elaborate on what makes online disclosure effective. This report examines four disclosure topics from the State Integrity Investigation: the online disclosure of campaign funding, lobbying activities, government contracting, and public officials’ finances and assets.

Key Features

The report examines disclosure websites based on the existence, and capability, of five key features:

  1. Transparency websites should have an intuitive interface that makes them easy to navigate through the vastness of government records, as a confusing webpage can deter a curious user. A good example is Hawaii's procurement disclosure website, which includes simple options and a drop-down list of vendors to search among.
  2. Transparency websites should provide basic information to citizens. There are a few core types of information that most users will be interested in – generally, the answers to who, what, where, when, and how (or how much). For example, Michigan's lobbying disclosure website allows users to quickly identify lobbyists, clients, and expenses.
  3. Transparency websites should make available features that make the data easier to understand and that make it come alive. This may take the form of a chart, graph, interactive map, or other tools that provide an overview of the data and make it possible to generate comparisons between entities. Colorado's campaign finance disclosure website makes good use of graphs to provide an overview of contributions in the state.
  4. Transparency websites should provide advanced information, which is needed by journalists, watchdog organizations, and researchers – the groups most often charged with explaining the more detailed information to the broader public. For instance, New Jersey's procurement disclosure website describes the contractor characteristics for each vendor: whether it is a small business or whether it is minority- or woman-owned.
  5. Transparency websites should provide downloadable datasets so that interested citizens can perform more in-depth analyses. For example, the federal procurement website offers data downloads.

Findings

A number of states are doing well on some aspects of online disclosure of accountability information, but no state has a uniformly user-friendly site, and even the best sites struggle with basic usefulness and usability.

It seems many of the sites are geared toward more advanced users, which can make locating information quite arduous for the average citizen. Generally, most states lack mechanisms, like graphs and interactive maps, for summarizing data, and do not provide user-friendly searching and sorting tools.

Sites are still overwhelmingly based on a “records” rather than “data” paradigm: they are meant to retrieve the digital analog of a paper filing, rather than using modern technology to allow users to explore and analyze the information contained in those records. Citizens familiar with state-of-the-art general consumer technology would likely find themselves disappointed by most of the sites we reviewed.

In general, the federal websites outperformed the states, but they still fell short in one or more important ways. The exception is in the area of financial and asset disclosure by public officials, in which the federal government lags behind state governments. However, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or STOCK Act, would improve this situation. The bill, which has passed both the House and the Senate in different forms, would require a new electronic system for financial disclosure filings from federal officials to be posted online.

Although the federal websites are generally more effective than the state sites, some of the better state sites implemented innovative features that the federal government and other states should consider adopting. For example, several state procurement websites provide the text of their contracts, including Mississippi, a practice that the federal government has yet to adopt.