The White House blog recently wrote about Obama’s trip to India and mentioned that US-based organizations could learn from Indian organizations using technology to improve accountability and transparency. I agreed. Now is a great time for the US government to recognize that there are transparency policies all over the world that we Americans could implement or, at a bare minimum, learn from. Here are just a few foreign governments that have policies we wish would improve what we have state-side:
You get a dataset! And you get a dataset! Everyone gets a dataset!
There is always progress to be made and the presumption to make data public and online (with teeth!) is an important cultural shift we hope to see soon. Just last week the United Kingdom took an unprecedented step to publicize all government spending over 25,0000 pounds. As governments around the world tighten their belts we think making the books fully transparent will allow citizens to be better informed about where their tax dollars go and how to move forward. Here in the US there is the Data.gov site (which could be greatly improved) and we are encouraged that the culture is shifting as we see folks like the United Nations, the World Bank, Russia, Spain, Finland, Australia and many others hopping on board.
Publicly Funded Research Papers Available to the Public
The Congressional Research Service, often referred to as ‘Congress’ think tank’, is a well-respected non-partisan branch of the Library of Congress that regularly publishes reports exclusively for members of Congress and their staff at a budget over $100 million. The Sunlight Foundation and others have long advocated for these reports to be public (meaning online), but they remain inaccessible to the general public.
Many foreign governments have publicly-funded think tanks similar to CRS, but they make the reports free to the public and accessible online. The United Kingdom has the House of Commons Library Research Papers, Canada has a nice list with categories on the site of their Library of Parliament Research Publications, and Australia publishes their reports (going back to 1993!) on the Parliament of Australia’s Parliamentary Library website. Australia even has official research reports published on the state level by the websites of Victoria and New South Wales.
Creating Better Disclosure Surrounding Resource Management
The US could learn a thing or two from other resource-rich countries about disclosing online searchable production, leases, costs, audits, and safety reports. This important non-proprietary information keeps the public informed about the safety and financial status of our natural resources. We hope the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) that replaced the Minerals Management Service (MMS) will take the necessary steps that many countries have already taken to improve online reporting in this sector.
The Revenue Watch Institute and Transparency International recently rated the top 41 oil, gas and mineral producing countries countries in terms of their government disclosure record [pdf link]. The United States came in at 11th place, behind Russia, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Ecuador and others. This ranking assessed revenue transparency more than safety records, but it is an important metric to recognize how much the US government could continue to learn. Let’s see less of this and more online disclosure like Angola.
Expanding and Enriching Visitor Logs
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has a portion of the official website dedicated to transparency initiatives including some substantive items that we would love to see in the US. We appreciate what the White House has done with releasing visitor logs, but a glance across the pond shows that Number 10 is posting details of meetings, hospitality, gifts and overseas travel across all departments and high level staff. Impressive stuff when you compare it to the White House offerings.
Online Disclosure Forms
The Australian equivalent of the Federal Election Commission, known down under as the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), has a great online system to research financial documents relating to the elections. It includes a nice financial disclosure and donor search function that is quite similar to the FEC version (both obviously don’t hold a candle to Sunlight’s illuminative version), but after some more research I discovered that they allow those who have to file* to do so through disclosure forms online! We didn’t venture beyond the sleek registration page, but it gave us goosebumps to see other countries approaching our vision of real-time online disclosure. We would like to see this type of online filing possible for lobbying, elections or even meetings – it would certainly ease the eyes of our reporters who often have to dig through .pdf image files.
* In Australia the political system requires candidates and Senate groups, registered political parties and their associated entities, and donors and third parties to lodge disclosure returns. Swoon!
It would be impossible to ignore that each country listed in the items above has a unique political system, but these examples serve as great starting points for policies that could work here, now. The Sunlight Foundation will continue to encourage dialogue on these important issues and hope that the US government learns from non-profits and governments all over the world.