The Dawning of Empire State Transparency

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Within the past week, the New York State Senate has taken some impressive steps toward conducting its business open and online. Earlier today, the Senate launched its new Web site that offers citizens a much clearer window into how the chamber functions and invites their participation. The site now includes a weekly calendar, “What’s happening now?” and “Find my senator” functions, info on senators, a listing of committees, data on issues and legislation, photos and videos and a blog. One aspect I find especially cool is the Markup function that allows the public to comment on legislation that is under consideration. This function is a New York version of Sunlight’s Public Markup. (Sunlight’s senior technology advisors, Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, are advising the Senate on their transparency redesign.) And here’s a link to an article from The New York Observer about the launch.

Here’s a short video of Malcolm A. Smith, Senate majority leader, introducing the site:

The new Web site launch comes on the heels of strong voices in the Senate calling on Gov. David Paterson to be transparent in how the state spends the federal stimulus funds. Last week, Republican lawmakers, citing a “total lack of oversight and accountability” with regard to the stimulus, called on the governor to adopt a comprehensive plan designed to ensure greater transparency in the spending of stimulus dollars. And earlier this week, 16 Democratic state senators sent the governor a letter calling on him to create an independent auditor to monitor the distribution of stimulus funds. And this all comes after a coalition, calling itself the NYS Stimulus Oversight Working Group, in April, called for the creation of an independent stimulus monitor (pdf).

Back in late February, John Wonderlich, Sunlight’s policy director, testified before the State Senate’s Temporary Committee on Rules Reform about the need for states to be open and transparent in their spending of stimulus funds. In his testimony, John promoted standards for transparency that can and should be applied generally to any legislature, and should be examined in the context of state-level disclosure reform.  And he proposed eight questions we at Sunlight believe the New York State Senate should be asking:

1. Is public information online?  Any data deemed public should also be available online.  Government serves the public poorly when it fulfills disclosure requirements by keeping binders in the basement of a public building. Government should post online in a timely manner procedural information, such as bills, committee schedules, transcripts, reports, or calendars to allow lawmakers and citizens to participate in the legislative process.  Rules should require such information to be posted online by those responsible for its creation: lawmakers, the leadership, or committees.

2. Are databases accessible in bulk?  Public databases should allow for advanced access through both bulk data download and programmatic interfaces (Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs).  Limited level of access forces programmers and analysts to examine public data through a needlessly limited viewpoint, effectively spurning complex or creative scrutiny.

3. Is public data accurate and descriptive?  Legislative information must be accurate to maintain its public utility. Votes data, journals, and transcripts should accurately reflect reality, and chambers’ rules should enforce this requirement.

4. Is technological infrastructure insulated from political abuse?  Professional qualified staff should create and maintain legislatures’ technological infrastructure with reliable funding and insulation from political concerns.  Committees for technological coordination, inspectors general, and public advisory boards can all provide effective steps toward promoting competent technology infrastructure.

5. Is ethics disclosure sufficient? Public trust is undermined when legislatures fail to enforce the disclosure of ethics information.  Financial disclosures, campaign finance disclosure, taxpayer funded expenditures, and ethics investigations should all be publicly available, in real time, and online.

6. Are individual lawmakers, committees, and leadership offices able to take advantage of online tools?  Just as non-profits, businesses, and other governments can set a useful example, individual staffers and lawmakers will often set good example if they can confidently engage online.  Legislatures should provide the technological support and legal guidance necessary for online engagement to flourish.

7. Is the public well served by the legislature’s disclosure? Legislatures often fail to meet even basic needs of constituents, answering questions like “Who is my representative?” or “Where can I find this bill?” Citizens should have a clear mechanism or contact point for transparency feedback, to help identify shortfalls, and develop better disclosure procedures.

8. Are lawmakers and their staffs able to do their jobs? A useful proxy for public access can be lawmakers’ offices themselves.  If lawmakers and their staff are missing an essential piece of information, or relying on expensive subscription services to do their jobs, then citizens are certainly being shut out. Lawmakers should have a similar forum for addressing technological issues, without fear of political reprisal.

As Ingrid Drake writes at POGO’s blog, a strong legislative branch is necessary to provide oversight of the executive branch, as is diligent citizen watchdogging, I would add.  Ingrid reports that the folks at POGO are hearing reports from the Empire State that “information about available stimulus funds is currently being shared mostly with entities that already have long-standing ties to state government through existing grants and contracts, or other existing relationships.”

Congratulations to Andrew, Micah and the Empire State Senate for their new and more transparent Web site. And kudos to the folks in New York working on bringing oversight and accountability to how the state spends the stimulus. The rest of the states should do the same.

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