A Searchable Database is a Preliminary Step Shining Light on Government
By Charles M. Arlinghaus
(Originally published in the Union Leader)
Sunshine Week is a celebration and encouragement of open and transparent government. In New Hampshire, a new online database of state spending will open the curtains on much of state government but a few windows still have the curtains drawn.
Newspapers and other open government advocates around the country celebrate this week as “sunshine week,” an ongoing effort to make sure more and more of the work of government is visible to the citizens it works for. In recent years, technology has played an increasing role in open government efforts and partisanship has played a lesser role.
For years now, conservative icon Grover Norquist and liberal icon Ralph Nader have been suggesting jointly that government use the internet to make all spending and contracts conveniently transparent. Norquist and Nader agreeing on anything is the moral equivalent, in New Hampshire terms, of Craig Benson and Mark Fernald joining forces –unusual to say the least.
At the federal level, a bill to create a federal online spending portal was jointly sponsored by then Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. They later jointly agreed that running for president was a good idea too, although they worked on that particular project separately.
The Obama-McCain project is proceeding glacially in Washington but at the state and local levels online databases are springing up across the country. In some states, the government builds its own transparency site –the Missouri Accountability Portal is a good example. But in most states, the government is slow to react and outside groups build websites.
In New Hampshire, the Josiah Bartlett Center has been working for two years building a website and trying to gather the information. My organization’s purpose is to place every single transaction of state spending – the equivalent of the state’s check register – in a searchable, free, online database. That database will be launched tomorrow with more than 400,000 individual transactions as NHOpenGov.org.
We began in April 2009 with a request for the state’s FY2009 data. So far, we have about half that data with the other half expected in the next week or so. By working in close cooperation with the state’s department of administrative services, we discovered and they discovered the significant structural obstacles to the easy transfer of data already maintained in a computer system.
In essence, structures and standard business procedures that don’t contemplate the public viewing of data are often obstacles to making public data public and keeping private data private. Their efforts to gather the data from each department have been more painful and time-consuming than they should have to be but that’s all about to change.
The House will pass a bill this week sponsored by Rep. David Bates to require each department to make its spending transactions public each month. Because the data will have to be published quickly, it will have to be maintained in a way that contemplates public viewing. State government will then be visible to anyone who wants to see it not years later but practically right away.
Tomorrow, a half million state spending transactions will be available in a searchable database. Within a few weeks, a full fiscal year -- a million transactions – will be searchable. Shortly after that, the current year will be available each month. Your state government spending will be nearly as accessible as your personal checkbook just as it should be.
But as much progress as we are making toward open government, much work remains. For decades state and local payrolls have been published routinely in series like the Union Leader’s look at local payrolls. Yet one area is off-limits. The retirement system refused to share state pensions. So a government employee’s salary is public data but his government funded pension is not.
The Union Leader has won a case in court to release the data but it is on appeal.
Another troublesome area is state contracts. Buried in large state contracts is much detail about spending but the details and the specific spending is not easily accessible. For years, state agencies would avoid equipment freezes or hiring freezes by having things paid for through the contract where it was more or less invisible.
The Executive Council, which approves all contracts, can be useful in making sure any contract or anything on their agenda is published online. In fact there’s no reason we shouldn’t all be able to follow their meetings and all the paperwork online.
Every day some new piece of information will be available online until we all have complete access to the same information as the governor. It’s our government. We shouldn’t hide it from ourselves.