We would like to present a short review of our most ambitious project which involves our experts in all parts of Russia – monitoring of the official websites of public authorities and local governments. This is a story about how expert control improves the work of authorities.

Openness in practice

Information openness of the governmental bodies with guaranteed access to the state information resources for the citizens makes the authorities more transparent to the society. In addition, these two factors increase social responsibility of the officials which definitely leads to an increase in quality of peoples’ life.

The way the governmental official websites are maintained indicates the rate of openness or closeness of particular agencies and the state on the whole; it also demonstrates decision-making and procedure transparency as well as the inclination of a particular agency to corruption or legal nihilism.

Thus, by exercising the principle of governmental transparency, we minimize the chance of human rights violations by the officials, creating grounds for public control over their operation. In other words, exercising peoples’ right to free searching and getting information can be regarded a necessary precondition for developing a law-based democracy.

According to the existing access to information law, governmental agencies do publish their information at their websites enabling Internet users to follow their performance 24/7. However, it still often happens that the published data are incomplete or irrelevant, or the visitors invariably see the notice saying “the section is under modernization” (it is especially common for sections containing financial information).

Perhaps, it happens because some malevolent officials still tend to see having to inform the citizens of their operations as an irritating obstacle in their daily work. The existing situation can be controlled by monitoring, the unique method for evaluating the information openness of the governmental bodies’ official websites and checking their conformity with the existing legal requirements, international standards and expert requirements.

The method was developed by experts of the Institute for Information Freedom Development (Russian Federation) in 2004 and after several years proved to be highly efficient, attracting a lot of attention from both governmental agencies and expert community in the field, for the monitoring results show the real state of affairs in implementing information technologies in the operation of governmental agencies.

Web-content analysis method is applied when analyzing the content of government bodies’ official websites. This method suggests that the experts study the Internet website content online to determine whether the websites have the pre-selected quantitative and qualitative characteristics. The effectiveness of the method is determined by its maximum similarity to the ways of searching information used by common Internet users when getting information from government bodies’ official websites.

Research principles and evaluating parameters

The Monitoring is based on the following basic principles:

Openness: the Monitoring method description and its results are published and are freely available.

Independence: the Monitoring results are based only on the assessments made by the experts who are independent of the government bodies and of each other.

Objectivity: the Monitoring results show the current situation in the studied sphere and do not depend on the subjective opinion or wish of the expert performing the research. All the experts doing the monitoring should possess proper qualification and knowledge.

Legality: the Monitoring is based on the requirements for the government bodies’ official websites set by the existing law.

The methods used for monitoring make it possible to see the dynamics of official websites’ information accessibility development for both separate governmental bodies and all the agencies to be monitored within one monitoring cycle.

Regular monitoring allows us to see the dynamics of information accessibility concerning the activities of governmental agencies. This approach is characterized by high methodical and legal strictness where a lot of attention is paid to the conformity of the official websites’ content to the requirements of the existing information access legislation. We take into account both Russian and international experience of Internet website functioning as well as expert opinion about public demand for certain characteristics of governmental bodies’ websites.

The requirements for the websites are formulated as a comprehensive list of parameters describing the quality of the information provided. These parameters are divided into two types – substantial and technical ones. By substantial parameters we mean the properties of the official website that characterize its information content. By technical parameters we mean the properties of the official website that characterize technological, program and linguistic means for providing official websites operation.

Our experts evaluate the parameters by the following criteria: – availability; – comprehensiveness; – relevance; – navigability; – format accessibility; – social significance of the content.

The number of possible values for each criterion does not exceed three which makes the expert work easier and promotes better objectiveness. If a more flexible evaluating system with more possible values is applied, some errors are inevitable.

Force of interaction

Since 2010 in our research work we have been using automated ЕХМО expert monitoring system designed by the Institute’s IT-specialists. Officials of the governmental bodies covered by the particular monitoring cycle receive invitations to register in ЕХМО system in advance.

In fact, ЕХМО is a unique communication resource where our experts can cooperate with the representatives of governmental bodies. The system improved our daily operation and made it easier for all stake holders to watch the monitoring process, providing the openness of its primary data as well as processed ones. EXMO system lets the governmental official see their “marks” for the stipulated cooperative period even before the monitoring results are formulated, so they can respond to the experts’ remarks and make changes in their official websites to influence the final score, or ask questions on the marks given for each parameter and indicate possible mistakes in the marks given.

Such cooperation between governmental officials and our experts improves the objectiveness of the monitoring results and, as a rule, also improves the level of information accessibility of the agencies’ websites and gives it a higher position in the final rating.

As result of implementing the opportunities of EXMO in 2011 monitoring, a registered 20% rise in information openness of the analyzed websites was seen.

Here are some examples of effective cooperation with governmental bodies.

Monitoring of the official websites of Judicial Department in 2012: as a result of cooperation, the average information openness coefficient grew from 63.58% to 80.51%.

Monitoring of the official websites of top executive bodies of the Russian Federation subjects in 2012: as a result of cooperation with our experts, the average information openness coefficient rose from 48.99% to 63.2%.

Monitoring of the official websites of legislative (representative) bodies of the Russian Federation subjects in 2012: for these agencies, which cooperated with our Foundation for the first time, the average information openness coefficient grew from 49.177% to 58.780%.

Monitoring of the official websites of federal executive bodies of the Russian Federation in 2012: in the course of cooperation, the average information openness coefficient rose from 53.22% to 69.77%.

It really works

The monitoring results in making information accessibility ratings of the official websites belonging to official governmental bodies of a certain type, which are openly published.

Apart from allowing us to evaluate objectively the practice of enforcing the information access legislation, they also stimulate the growth in quality of information content in the governmental agencies’ websites.

Eight-year experience of monitoring and cooperating with the relevant bodies demonstrates annual progress. However, the work does not end here; our experts use the research results to make recommendations and suggestions for each agency so that their websites could become more user-friendly.

The advantages of our monitoring method include its focus on the existing legal system, the emphasis on the high research quality through comprehensive scope of the official website data as well as its universal applicability, i.e. it can cover the official websites of all governmental bodies at the same level.

The independence of the monitoring organization guarantees the research objectiveness; therefore the monitoring results are recognized by the examined governmental bodies as well as by NGOs.

On the whole, monitoring is a real and effective way to influence the situation in the Internet governmental sector.

We are open to cooperation!

The monitoring method that has been designed by the Institute for Information Freedom Development, can be applied not for governmental websites only. Its core principle can be adapted for other research works as well.

For instance, we have composed lists of parameters for monitoring non-profit NGOs and made the appropriate rating list. Openness is an essential part of NGOs public performance because it is a necessary condition for building positive reputation of the organization and promoting trust in it.

Thus, the monitoring method is a convenient and efficient tool with wide range of purposes. We are interested in cooperation with both governmental and non-governmental organizations of different countries to broaden the method application practice including possible joint comparative research.