This week, Speaker Pelosi asked House administrators to post House members’ expenses on the Web, for the first time. We are quite excited about Speaker Pelosi’s action , as it demonstrates a strong commitment toward increasing transparency and accountability. (Hard as this might be to imagine but currently, the House collects and publishes members’ expenses in a bound paper book on a quarterly basis.)
So now we hear that the first batch of expenditure reports will be posted before Aug. 31 in the PDF format. PDFs are notoriously challenging because they are difficult for computers to index and people to search .Now we are not so happy.
Congress needs to be urged to provide these reports in a format that is structured, searchable, downloadable and mashable. This will enable the reuse of information to improve public scrutiny. Assurances should be given to the public that these records will be permanently archived and the House should be encouraged to make these reports happen in as close to real-time disclosure as feasible.
All this will improve the public’s ability to better analyze the data, and that is key to making this new disclosure mandate fulfill Pelosi’s promise to increase transparency and ensure greater accountability to the public.
And, there’s no reason the Senate should be allowed to continue to keep their expenditures in the dark. The Senate leadership should be encouraged to follow the House’s lead and also publish senators’ expenditures online.
The Sunlight Foundation has repeatedly called for Congress to post these expenditure reports online—initially in March 2008 as part of our model Transparency in Government Act, which we posted on PublicMarkup.org. Since then, we have further encouraged online disclosure through blog posts and communications with Pelosi’s staff.
Speaker Pelosi’s new mandate also follows a recent scandal in the UK that has resulted in several lawmakers, including the Speaker of the British Parliament, to step down because of rampant misuse of public funds spent by Members of Parliament on personal items including repair of a castle moat. News of this scandal has hit the front pages of newspapers around the world. Undoubtedly, British Members of Parliament would have spent their allowances differently had they expected their purchases to be under public scrutiny.
Today, our newly networked citizenry has rising expectations of greatly expanded access to governmental information, so that it may play a fuller role in understanding, evaluating and participating in the workings of its government. At the same time, online transparency enhances the press’ ability to mind the work of government and be the eyes, ears and voice of the people.
Congress should be encouraged to maximize this new opportunity to show its dedication to truly creating the kind of transparency that technology now makes possible and that the public has come to expect.