Updated 3/13/13 to reflect new grades for NY and RI.
WASHINGTON, DC — A new analysis from the Sunlight Foundation presents a “Transparency Report Card” on how well state legislative information is made available to the public. Using data collected from our Open States project, Sunlight ranks the good, the bad and the ugly of state websites.
Evaluated across six criteria, the Sunlight Foundation developed a scorecard and letter grades for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Transparency Report Card judges legislative websites in relation to how government information is publicly available. Factors include: completeness, timeliness, ease of electronic access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards and permanence.
Full state rankings and our methodology are below but here is how the top and bottom of the class fared:
Today marks the start of the Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of policies, programs and activities that maintain the public’s right to know and the importance of open government. But sometimes, getting that information can be a challenge.
That’s what the developers at Sunlight Labs and a group of civic hacker volunteers discovered as they collected legislative data from state websites across the country to build OpenStates.org. Creating a comprehensive database of bill text, roll call votes and lawmaker contacts that is both developer- and user-friendly came with its own frustrations.
“In the course of writing code to scrape data for all state legislatures, our Open States team and volunteers spent a lot of time looking at state websites and struggled with the often inadequate information made available,” said James Turk, a Sunlight Labs developer. “We hope states will use this report card as a guidepost to improve how they present what their legislature is doing online. Having this data released the right way is important for holding our state governments accountable.”
The Sunlight Foundation’s methodology used the Ten Principles for Opening Up Government Information. We used six of the principles to evaluate the openness of the each state’s legislative data. Letter grades were calculated based on the score received for each criterion.
Completeness — We evaluated each state on the data collected by Open States: bills, legislators, committees, votes and events. We also took note if a state went above and beyond to provide this information and other relevant contextual information such as supporting documents, legislative journals and schedules. Points were deducted for missing data, often roll call votes.
Timeliness — Legislative information is most relevant when it happens, and many states are publishing information in real time. Unfortunately, there are also states where updates are more infrequent and showing up days after a legislative action took place. States were dinged if data took more than 48 hours to go online.
Machine Readability — For many sites, the Open States team wrote scrapers to collect legislative information from the website code — a slow, tedious and error prone process. We collected data faster and more reliably when data was provided in a machine-readable format such as XML, JSON, CSV or via bulk downloads. If a state posted PDF image files or scanned documents, it received the lowest score possible.
Use of Commonly Owned Standards — This provision measured how a state made their bill text available. Making text available in HTML or PDF is the norm and was considered acceptable since any one could view them within a web browser. States that only make documents available a Microsoft Word or other text document format require the user to have (or purchase) the proper software to read the bill got a negative score.
Permanence — Many states move or remove information when a new session starts, leaving 404 pages and broken links where there was once bill text, resulting in a lower score. Most (but not all) states are good about at least preserving bill information. Few were equally as good about preserving information about out-of-office legislators and historical committees.
Review the scores for all U.S. states and the District of Columbia and point system for each criterion here.
Open States Transparency Report Card Letter Grades
State Letter Grade
New Hampshire A
New York A
North Carolina A
New Jersey B
New York B
West Virginia B
South Carolina C
South Dakota C
District of Columbia C
New Mexico C
North Dakota C
Rhode Island D
About Open States
OpenStates.org is a website anyone can use to discover more about lawmaking in their state. Open States is a comprehensive database of legislative information for all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The website makes it easy to find state lawmakers, review their votes, search legislation and track bill progress, as well as compare legislation from state to state.
The Sunlight Foundation is a non-partisan non-profit that uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable. Visit http://SunlightFoundation.com to learn more about Sunlight’s projects, including http://PoliticalPartyTime.org and http://influenceexplorer.com.