by Lauren Harper, an expert in National Security Archive at George Washington University
The international monitoring survey for the US revealed that there are some areas the US ranks very high on, and others that could stand for some improvement.
There are various acts and initiatives that stipulate what records and what information the federal government must provide online. These include the Freedom of Information Act’s E-FOIA amendments of 1996, and the Electronic Records Management Initiative.
Except where explicitly noted, all of the information that was found, and links that were posted, are from websites operated and maintained by the US federal government. It should be noted, however, that in some instances information was obtained from local government websites, including information about crime maps and obtaining polling information.
One of the areas that it was difficult to find information on was the area of financial disclosure forms, or asset declarations. The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 mandates high level employees in the federal government, including political appointees above a certain pay grade (including secretaries of federal agencies), must fill out these forms annually, the details of which can be found here. These forms also cover the appointee’s spouse and dependents, and are to be made available for six years. However, in order to access these reports, one must fill out a request form with the knowledge that the information cannot be used for commercial or other purposes, and they are not easily found online unless someone who has requested the form has posted it somewhere after receiving it. The Obama administration has made it easer for people to request this information by making one website where someone can go to request this information across the federal government (http://www.whitehouse.gov/public-forms/oge278), but it would be more transparent if this information was provided proactively and electronically. It is difficult to suggest how to do so given privacy concerns, but it remains that the White House should not rely on the request system for this information, as it could find a way to withhold personal information from these documents and post them to the internet.
Another parameter for which there was no information was a government-run site that would allow you to search for private corporations. I believe, however, there is also no need to build and maintain a government site that allows you to search for private corporations, as this is a function already filled by the private sector, and would be timely, expensive, and redundant for the government to do as well.
While tax information is generally available online , the information is not easily searchable. The same goes for visitors received by the President.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) does overall a good job of making public records available and informing the public where to locate both hard and soft copies of its records, but there are larger concerns about NARA’s funding and its ability to fulfill its mission, especially with the increasing amount of electronic records, absent increased resources.
The US does an exemplary job of posting: federal court proceedings, whether it be criminal, civil, or administrative; information from this and previous years’ congressional record; and electronically posting federal regulations. Land data and crime maps are also well documented and easy to locate.
There were no problems that I would identify as major, though there were issues that should be addressed, like ensuring that all federal departments post required information in a consistent fashion, and do so in a timely manner, so that it’s easiest to serve the public.
Overall the US does a good job posting governmental information online. The US clearly prioritizes ensuring that the laws of the land are available online, and that important departmental documents are posted in electronic format. It’s clear, however, that some departments put more of an emphasis on making information available electronically. The courts do an excellent job, from what I could find, and, generally speaking, the largest departments (cabinet level departments) do a good job of allocating resources to make sure that important information is available online (government accountability offices also do a good job). However, this is not the case for all agencies, some of whose websites are clearly outdated. While I do not think it is generally a reflection of a willful intent to not be transparent, it would be ideal if there were enforced, government-wide standards for posting information, like regulations, on agency websites, and in what format these documents were done. Ensuring that posted documents, especially PDFs, are searchable, is also key.