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The Government Domain: Wrapping Up 2008

By Peggy Garvin, Published on December 20, 2008

The year 2008 was marked by many developments in the world of online government information. On the macro level, the year saw a push by individuals and nongovernment organizations for increased access to digital government information. On the micro level, new official government and non-government websites came online, and existing sites developed more sophisticated features.

Macro

Free access to government information is a common cause for a variety of government information users seeking access for a variety of reasons. The transparency-for-an-informed-citizenry contingent includes nonprofit groups (such as the Sunlight Foundation and OpentheGovernment.org) and individuals who have an interest in citizen engagement paired with web development skills (such as Josh Tauberer of Govtrack.us). Advocates also include corporations (such as Google) that – in addition to any desire for government transparency -- want to enhance the value of their own product. Transparency advocates with a technology bent are asking for existing government data to be put online, for free, in standard formats, and available for bulk download.

A group of self-described open government advocates, including Lawrence Lessig, came up with a set of eight principles for open data in late 2007. Lessig recently announced a pared down set of three “Principles for an Open Transition,” posted on the open-government.us website to serve as recommendations to the Presidential Transition Team. The principles summarize common recommendations from the open government data crowd: No Legal Barrier to Sharing; No Technological Barrier to Sharing; and Free Competition. The Free Competition principle states that government information should “not be made publicly available in a way that unfairly benefits one commercial entity over another, or commercial entities over noncommercial entities”.

Grants from nonprofits, developments in web programming, a push for transparency in government, and lots of enthusiastic volunteer time have all contributed to a dynamic scene.

Micro

What does this have to do with those of us in the government research trenches? It brings us more resources and more scrutiny of federal data quality, both good things. My wrap-up of recent new websites and features includes many that are part of the open government data movement. But this micro-development section is more of a “clearing the cache” assortment of recently released tools and resource changes of every stripe.

Much of the transparency-through-technology action at the national level has focused on the U.S. Congress. OpenCongress, a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, introduced a vote comparison feature this fall. Available at www.opencongress.org/person/compare, the tool lets you select any two senators or any two representatives and see the rate of similarity in their floor votes. If you have not used OpenCongress yet, by all means check it out. For me, the most useful feature is to see the home page lists of bills most viewed, bills most blogged, and bills in the news. If you manage a website concerned with legislation, you may also want to check out the OpenCongress Bill Status Widget and other tools.

GovTrack.us, a pioneer in the current movement, has recently announced significant new features. When viewing the full text of a bill on GovTrack, you have some new options:

Like OpenCongress, GovTrack has added a vote comparison tool for viewing the floor votes of two members side-by-side. These new features and others are described at the GovTrack site.

In addition to new ways of looking at Congress, 2008 also brought some news ways of looking at those who lobby Congress. Thanks to the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (Public Law No. 110-81), the House and Senate each now have portal pages for finding the lobby disclosure reports filed with each chamber and for information about the disclosure requirements. The shortcut URL for the Senate’s disclosure portal is www.senate.gov/lobby. The House has put disclosure filings online for the first time; the Clerk of the House maintains a portal for the filings and other disclosure information at http://lobbyingdisclosure.house.gov/.

This fall, the Sunlight Foundation introduced a website for viewing foreign agent filings, FARAdb. Foreign agents are those who lobby on behalf of a foreign government or entity controlled by a foreign government, and the filings are required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. FARA filings back to the 1940s are available through the Justice Department’s FARA database. Sunlight’s FARAdb currently only has records filed in 2006 and 2007 by lobbyists for entities from 15 foreign countries, “a small sliver of the available data” they admit. It is an example of experimentation by the open government information crowd, providing a different way to search and view data that is also available from an official government site.

(Note: For more information on the lobbying disclosure databases, see “Lobbying Disclosure Databases: A User’s Guide,” by Peggy Garvin and Deanna Gelak, Online Magazine, September/October 2008, pages 34-38. Full text not online.)

Moving on to the executive branch, we have been fortunate to see improvements to regulatory information on official government websites. The National Archives Office of the Federal Register has a user-friendly URL, www.federalregister.gov. The Office recently announced online access to the Federal Register Public Inspection Desk, documents scheduled to be printed in future issues of the Federal Register. The government’s Regulations.gov database of regulatory docket items came into its own this year, providing online access to public comments and other documents. On the downside, Regulations.gov remains awkward to search. (An American Bar Association committee published a report on the future of e-rulemaking that identifies many of the challenges for Regulations.gov). From the nonprofit sector, specifically OMB Watch, we gained the Regulatory Resource Center to help us make sense of it all.

Looking Forward

The New Year promises to bring some changes. The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) is scheduled to roll out the Federal Digital System, a replacement for GPO Access, throughout 2009. USASpending.gov, a database of federal grants and contracts award information, is scheduled to bring subgrant and subcontract award data online in 2009. Since the cosponsor of the legislation mandating this database will soon be President, odds for this improvement are good. (OMB Watch, a partner in bringing USASpending.gov online, maintains a nongovernment version at FedSpending.org.) Finally, the Pew Charitable Trusts is partnering with the Sunlight Foundation to produce an online database of federal subsidies, such as special tax breaks, not covered by USASpending.gov. The new database, called SubsidyScope, will be online later in 2009. A press release announcement also promised “during the course of developing the database, Subsidyscope will release regular reports, aggregating and analyzing subsidies to various industry sectors.”

We can expect 2009 to be a very interesting year for government information researchers.