Why isn’t government information all online?

Published 10:59 am Friday, March 17, 2017

by Megan Rhyne

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column first appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

IN A VERY SHORT TIME, we have moved from the notion of, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if I could get the information I want online” to the expectation that, “Of course, the information I want is online.”

Some may still be making the transition, but younger Virginians live with a near absolute confidence that whatever they want to know will be readily available through an online search. Not an extensive search, either, but just a few clicks.

Basic information about government should be no different.

Four years ago, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government conducted a survey of all Virginia cities and counties to see how easy it was to find their budgets online. Some localities had easy access from the home page that linked to data-rich files, with links to earlier budgets, analyses of the current budget, proposals for future budgets and so on.

Some localities — typically, but not exclusively the smaller ones — had the information on their website, but it took some hunting to find it. A very small handful didn’t have budgets online at all.

Though the survey focused on local government budgets, it was a safe bet that we would have found basically the same results in a survey of school districts or state agencies.

We would expect better results today. Thanks to companies like Wix, SquareSpace and Weebly, websites are more sophisticated, yet also easier to build and maintain now than they were just four short years ago. Facebook, too, is a free, easy option for sharing valuable information; some businesses have even jettisoned their websites in favor of a Facebook-only presence.

Many governments have contracted with various data companies like OpenGov or Socrata to package data into useful formats allowing website visitors to visualize information and allowing developers to download the data in order to perform deeper analysis or to add value.

It is within this climate of ever-increasing expectations that data will be online, easier but yet more powerful websites, and the rise of third-party data companies that SB 795 was introduced. The bill brought by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Midlothian, would have required local governments and school divisions to post online “a register of all funds expended,” including credit card expenses.

The bill passed the Senate, but died on a unanimous bipartisan vote in a House subcommittee. Opposition to the bill centered on the expected burden and expense of complying. Some local governments and school districts offered estimates of how much it might cost that ranged into the tens of thousands of dollars. Some said it would only cost a few thousand dollars, while still others said it would not impact them because they were already providing the data.

Interestingly, one locality speculated in an impact statement that while it would not cost much for it to comply, it was unable to “quantify the increased public contact to answer questions as a result of the information being readily available.” The flip side of this concern, of course, is that with the information being available on-demand, public employees would not have to spend time responding to citizen requests for the same data through the Freedom of Information Act.

Budget data is the most basic of government information. It is the foundation from which all government work flows. Income and expenses reveal priorities, reflect the value of the work being done and how efficiently.

The content of the budget data means something different to everyone in that one person’s boondoggle is another person’s essential service. The data itself, therefore, is neutral. It lends itself to evaluation by the shareholders, that is, the public, based on the shareholders’ values and ideologies. It isn’t enough to see year-end totals; citizens — just like a family or a business — want to keep current with expenditures to date.

The technology is there, the expectation is there, the desire of government to provide useful services to citizens is there, and, more than anything, the public policy favoring a well-informed electorate is there.

With or without a statute, government should start making the granular detail of current spending available to enrich the budget data already available, and they should provide that data online.

MEGAN RHYNE is executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, one of the members of Transparency Virginia. Email her at mrhyne@opengovva.org. The Transparency Virginia report can be found at www.transparencyvirginia.wordpress.com.