Part II: Commission Findings and Recommended Strategies
Public Access to Data Requires Government Support and Cooperation A key variable affecting the information ecology will be the ease of getting relevant facts and data. Government is a central actor in determining that access. Government agencies create and maintain information about government activity. They know how citizens can acquire government services most easily. Government can provide leadership in offering access to information in forms that are usable by everyone, including accessible media for people with disabilities.31 Governments are also frequently the chief collectors of social information. They track where people live and work, how schools perform, what houses are worth, which businesses are opening and closing, public health patterns, and much more. Sharing this information with the public (while respecting privacy and confidentiality where appropriate) can empower individuals and groups to spot new business opportunities. It can reveal avenues for local improvement. It can trigger important stories in local media. Governments could do much more to make available the civic, social and economic data they possess. The coalition behind 2009 Sunshine Week, a national initiative to spur public dialogue on open government and freedom of information issues, sponsored a national survey to determine the online availability of 20 categories of information.32 As the organizers explained, “The categories for the survey were selected for generally serving the overall public good—the kind[s] of information people need for their own health and well-being and that of the community.” Only half the states offer even a dozen of these categories online. One state— Mississippi—offered only four. In the case of campaign finance reporting, one observer calls the current pattern “failure by design.” Many states allow candidates to use paper forms to report contributions and expenditures. This significantly impairs government’s capacity to easily share public information. As a result, the public does not gain timely access to the information. Government performance also falls short in the preservation and handling of public records. Every state has open records laws. So does the federal government. Yet, freedom of information audits routinely show failures to turn over documents that the law requires agencies to disclose. Compliance is too often slow and uncooperative. Both journalists and members of the public sometimes encounter demands for extraordinary fees.
Published on Feb 5, 2010