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Statelight: Transparency in a Box, Pt. 3

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As we set the stage for advocating on local and state transparency issues and highlight some policies issues of note, inevitably the question comes:

How exactly do you go about learning more about policies in your state?

Whether you've already picked a policy focus, want to learn more about what role open government policies could play in your state, or are just chasing curiosity, you need to answer this question. To make your search for answers clearer -- more transparent if you will -- we've laid out a series of questions for you to ask to help get you started with your research.

ONE: What issue area do I focus on?

In our last episode of Transparency in a Box, John laid out three issue areas that will be of interest to many state advocates: ethics and campaign finance, budget transparency, and legislative data. Depending upon which policy you choose there are different resources that outline the answers to a crucial question for your research:

What information does the government currently provide about this policy? Or, what's knowable from your government?

The answer to this question will vary by state and issue. If you're interested in learning about how to determine what the situation is in your state for ethics and campaign finance, jump down to TWO. If you're looking to do research on budget transparency, jump to THREE. And for your legislative data needs, head to FOUR. For general open government resources, jump to FIVE.

TWO: How can I figure out what information is available for ethics and campaign finance?

Where to look: Your state likely has a department of government that oversees campaign finance laws, either as part of the office of its Secretary of State or Board of Elections. (For a good example, check out Michigan's site for Lobbying Disclosure.) Personal Financial Disclosures can be harder to find and are sometimes available from a statewide ethics office. (See Florida’s example. ) For a beginning look at your state's code of law, the Library of Congress provides some great links, though you may need to do an additional search to find out your state’s ethics regulations. And while not a perfect resource, you should also play with CREW's Ethics in Your State tool. Although the corruption rankings are two years old, you'll find helpful resources for groups working on ethics and campaign finance in your state along with media resources that might help give you a greater sense of your state's situation.

What to look for: You can focus on one of the three policies below or search for information on all of them. In each instance, you'll want to find out whether these things are actually available and if so, how much information is provided to the public and how much is online:

  • Personal Financial Disclosures
  • Campaign Contributions
  • Lobbying Disclosure
How this policy is enacted: Campaign finance policies are determined by the passage of laws or by executive orders. Finding this sort of information will do a lot to tell you about why things are the way they are now, which is important to understand if you're interested in working to make this policy more transparent.

THREE: How can I figure out the transparency of my state's budget?

Where to look: Your state's budget portal. If you're unable to find what you're looking for there, try looking for more information on your governor or comptroller general's website. Although you should always go the source (i.e. your state's official website) there are other sites that can help inform your search and understanding. For instance, check out this resource from the Center for Fiscal Accountability, which hosts useful links and news about budget transparency, listed by state. The Sunshine Review also posts a guide to budget transparency listed by state.

What to look for: Are budget proposals posted online in addition to actual expenditures? How timely or complete is the publishing? Does your state have an open website for its budget/spending?

How this policy is enacted: Many states (but not all) have an online budget portal that shows how money is spent. These portals could be enacted by law, but are more likely based on an initiative from your governor or your comptroller general who can build such a site when made a gubernatorial priority.

Related to this portal is the general process by which your state sets its spending priorities. This system can vary from one state to another, but generally involves your governor submitting a proposal for a budget and your legislature eventually approving it. The actual process, from submission to approval, is incredibly complex with a number of open and secret negotiations.

FOUR: How can I figure out what legislative data my state publishes?

Where to look: The official source of legislative information in your state, most likely your state legislature's website, which you can find quickly on this comprehensive list. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) The Library of Congress also publishes a resource on state laws that should help your search. Each state page includes links for that state's bills and legislative session laws. The Open States Project is also working on collecting a variety of legislative data for each state and may be a good source for research or collaboration.

What to look for: Keeping in mind that there are variety of ways to interpret "legislative data transparency" (which John goes into more detail with in his post), two to focus on:

  1. Look to see if your state legislature posts its bills, amendments, and votes online. See whether the information is searchable and what the timeline is that your state uses for posting these documents online. Does your legislature note whether bills have to be online before a vote? If so, how long before?

  2. You should also check to see how the state is making its legislative data available. This is the more technical side, but it’s crucial to creating innovative web platforms that can aggregate and share bills, votes, and amendments. Most states display bills and other legislation in HTML; others post actual data files in order to empower more advanced analysis and reuse. For a great example of open government work in this field, see the New York State Senate, a leader in making raw data available to developers.

If you're having problems searching for information on this subject on your legislature's website, you may have to turn to your search engine of choice. Use a combination of keywords including your state's name and phrases like "legislative data," "general assembly data," "data system," and "online." Your search results may turn up a free resource (see Rhode Island's example) or a proprietary one. Look for contact information from an associated government official to learn more.

How this policy is enacted: Legislative data is controlled by legislative procedure and changes to existing policy may require a change of your assembly or chamber's rules, or may also be able to be changed by an initiative of the technical staff of the legislature.

FIVE: Where can I learn more about general states-related open government stuff?

There are number of resources scattered around out there, but a good place to start is to check out the work of organizations within your state. This directory of state and national organizations is a great place to find out about who's already working on issues in your state and what issues they focus on. My colleague, Sarah, is also compiling a review of state transparency efforts. Check back to see how your state is doing.

While not an open government site, per say, this digest of state laws, hosted by the Library of Congress (mentioned above) is a great "one-stop" source for state-specific government sites. Head here when you're looking for pages listing your state's bills, legislative session laws, and other odds and ends.

OpenMuni Wiki is a collaborative platform where people share case studies and best practices for open government policy and advocacy. Although the site started with a more local focus, it has since expanded to include state-level concerns and should be turned especially when you're looking into open standards for government data. If you're looking for even more ideas or inspiration from the work others are doing around the country, OpenMuni offers a great list of like minded efforts. Poking around these groups will show you the lay of the open government land and again provides the opportunity to collaborate on ongoing transparency projects. Similarly, check out CityCamp to see how folks working on a municipal level are actively gathering public officials, citizens, and experts of every sort together to problem solve local transparency issues. Getting involved with a CityCamp can be a great way to connect with people already in the field.

This post only gives you an tiny view of all the work being done to get transparency for different levels of governance. There is still a great need to organize for change on a state level, and to be successful these transparency initiatives need to communicate with one another. If you do decide to join an open government group or to craft your own initiative, post your efforts where others can find and connect with you and your work. We host an open government projects page so that you can archive your work, ask questions of your peers in the field, and check out the work others are doing, though connecting with folks over Govloop or OpenMuni will be useful to you, too.

Have a favorite open government site that I missed? Please (!) share it with us below. (Extra points if it has a state focus.)