States flunk push for open data — report

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Nearly all 50 states came up short in their efforts to open data to the public, according to a new report from a nonprofit watchdog group.

In its second “State Integrity Investigation,” released Monday, the Center for Public Integrity found that 42 states have no open data laws on the books. Two states have laws that require the government to make information available, but they don’t stipulate whether the data should be machine readable. Meanwhile, a majority of states did not post the results of financial disclosure forms by legislators and lobbyists in easily usable formats.

The integrity report card, the result of a yearlong investigation that evaluated states in 13 categories related to a range of government transparency and accountability issues, gave only three states overall grades above a D+, and 11 flunked outright.

Nicholas Kusnetz, project manager for the investigation, told StateScoop that the center put a premium on examining open data policies and found few state efforts to make their data machine readable, meaning it can be downloaded and manipulated.

“They may put information online in the form of a PDF, but take lobbyist disclosures for example,” Kusnetz said. “There are few states that are putting all of it online in a way that someone can download the entire dataset of what’s on those reports.”

While the investigation found that 41 states made lobbyist disclosure forms available “online at no cost” or allowed users to obtain them “electronically within a week, or in paper for no more than the cost of photocopies,” few made those results available in a machine-readable format. The group found that, in 11 states, lobbyist “information is not available online, or it is, but cannot be downloaded” and, in 22 states, disclosure forms are available online, but only as PDFs.

When it comes to information about lawmakers’ assets, Kusnetz said that “some states have been really forward in terms of putting that information online.” But problems persist, he added.

The center determined that 32 states make the results of legislators’ asset disclosure forms available online or electronically, but again, they were rarely made readily usable. The report found that 27 states failed to make the information available or downloadable, while 23 others put the forms online, but only as PDFs.

States that fail to put those records online make it unnecessarily difficult for the public to learn more about the outside factors that could be influencing their lawmakers, Kusnetz said.

“There are [states] that require you to request it, you can’t just go online and go to a website and look at what kind of income lawmakers have from private jobs,” Kusnetz said. “In some cases, the lawmakers are even informed of those requests, which is further disincentive.”

The report also raises questions about how states allow the public to access electronic government records. The accessibility of emails by officials and lawmakers was an issue that came up especially frequently.

In all, the center found that staffers or legislators in at least 13 states have tried, often successfully, to block records requests for their emails. Kusnetz noted that in several states — Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas and New Mexico — the group found that officials were able to skirt open records laws by using private email accounts to conduct government business.

“This came in Kansas, for example, where the governor acknowledged that he used a private email account to communicate with staff members, and in Kansas, that appeared to make it exempt from public disclosures law, and they’re now looking at that question of how they can close that loophole,” Kusnetz said. “That’s really getting worked out in the courts on a state-to-state basis.”

Considering the report’s overwhelmingly negative findings overall, Kusnetz hopes that the public will view the investigation as a call to action.

“Our job is to highlight these issues and bring these issues into public discussion,” Kusnetz said. “We very much hope that people will go the website and look through their report cards.”

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electronic records, Open Data, Open Government, open records, open records laws, State & Local News
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