Earlier this year, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy (D) signed a bill that would require that all state regulations be posted online. Once the law goes into full effect, Connecticut will join almost every other state and the District of Columbia in making their regulations freely accessible on the internet. Only one state, Massachusetts, requires interested parties to pay for access to this vital information.
Inspired by Connecticut’s decision, we decided to do a survey of the online accessibility of state regulations. Our research identified whether regulations could be accessed through the web, whether or not the state provides downloadable versions of these regulations and which states require their proposed rules and regulations to be posted online. We also tracked if these requirements translate into actually online publishing and the amount of time that proposed rules have to be available for public review before they go into effect. You can find the full results of our research -- and links to each state’s relevant law -- on our research page.
The results were surprising: We were pleased to find that so many states have procedures for making their regulations available online, though our research made it very clear that there are no consistent best practices. Many states fail to provide their regulations in downloadable formats, almost none provide bulk data downloads, a few insist on charging fees for access, and others make their codes difficult to browse. Some states post their code online, but fail to provide notice of proposed changes.
A look at the landscape
Massachusetts currently makes their regulations harder to access than any other state, requiring an annual subscription fee of $110 to access the state’s regulation database. Their system could be well designed, easy to use and provide bulk data downloads, but it is impossible to tell without registering and paying for the service.
The barriers created by other states are less overt, and likely the product of a limited understanding of the different ways in which people need to access electronic information. For example, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, Florida, Louisiana and Maine allow users to search and browse the titles of regulations online through their browser, but require downloads to access the full text -- an innocuous, but real obstruction to interacting with this public information. To its credit, South Carolina provides both HTML (browser accessible) and downloadable versions of its regulations, but the downloadable data is only available in DOCX -- a closed, proprietary format.
On the flip side, 16 states do not allow for any downloads of their data. Three others-- California, Maryland and Montana -- allow downloads, but only after charging various, often exorbitant, fees. This kind of restriction plays on privilege, limiting the access of those members of the public who want to study these documents when not connected to the Internet or who lack the financial resources to purchase these records.
Finally, it’s worth noting that not a single state provides bulk data downloads in an ideal manner. Most states that offer something like bulk access hide their regulations behind user fees, though there are a few exceptions. Kansas has released its 2011 regulations as a single PDF (which, while not awful, is certainly not ideal), and Delaware , taking a more creative (if perplexing) approach, makes its regulations available via a cornucopia of eBook formats.
Once Connecticut's new law goes into effect, only three states -- Georgia, Massachusetts, and South Carolina -- will fail to post proposed rule changes online via their state registers.
The fact that states are publishing their regulations online at all is a great step towards broadening public access to this information, but there is plenty of room for improvement. In the coming weeks we will take a look at how the Federal government deals with this issue and dig deeper into this research to identify more specific recommendations for states.
To check out the results of our survey, head here: http://www.opencongress.org/wiki/State_Regulations_Online
Policy Intern Hunter Main provided research and contributed to writing this piece.