After a long wait, the White House is today launching Ethics.gov (at Explore.data.gov/ethics ), fulfilling the President’s campaign promise to create a single website for searches related to executive branch ethics and influence data.
In case you’ve forgotten, candidate Obama frequently referred to putting important ethics information online in a single location. The exact information varies from speech to speech, but here’s an example:
Centralize Ethics and Lobbying Information for Voters: Obama and Biden will create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format.
Create a Public “Contracts and Influence” Database: As president, Obama will create a “contracts and influence” database that will disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them.
Today’s release satisfies the spirit of those promises. The Ethics.gov page on data.gov allows for keyword searches, displaying relevant results from a variety of different sources, and also allowing bulk downloads of the related data.
We should be clear about what this new site does and doesn’t do — neither money and politics research nor executive branch oversight are going to be revolutionized by this search page — at least not yet. We’ll see to what degree this new interface becomes the main destination for investigative journalists or ethics officials. That’s unlikely to happen right away.
But we should also remember that this is a very new role for the White House to be playing. Ethics.gov was a tricky promise to fulfill, which is probably part of the reason it’s taken almost four years to implement. It’s tricky because presidents haven’t played this role before — of trying to bring together various sources of ethics data into a single search, to empower public oversight. That’s the reason that we’re excited about Ethics.gov — the President is acknowledging the role of public oversight, and asserting that the President has a responsibility to create meaningful online disclosure of ethics and influence information.
That’s a new role for the President, and one we’re glad to see the White House struggling through, especially because it’s a role Sunlight has tried to play as much as possible. Our InfluenceExplorer site was built on the idea that public accountability and influence data should be as broadly available as possible, and that disclosure becomes more powerful when put into the context of related data, just like the unified search on Ethics.gov tries to do. Lockheed Martin’s search page illustrates this well — campaign contributions only really make sense when viewed alongside lobbying, grants and contracts, contractor misconduct records, and other regulatory activity. These disclosures make the most sense when viewed in context, just as Ethics.gov tries to do.
We’ll have more comments on what the administration has put together as we dig into the data and the presentation, especially since they will have had to fight with many of the same complex issues as our expert technologists have. Pulling together these various datasets into a unified search isn’t as simple as just matching the names; there are all kinds of complex problems involved in combining government datasets into this kind of search interface. We hope that having the White House share an explicit stake in the format of FEC data or lobbying records will strengthen public advocates’ hands as we try to fix their flaws.
Sunlight’s wishlist for Obama hasn’t gotten shorter for some time — we’re still looking for leadership on money in politics and lobbying, for a new EO on earmark disclosure, for better disclosure around top officials’ involvement in unlimited fundraisers, and for strong enforcement of data disclosure requirements. On Ethics.gov, we’re glad to see the White House attempting to live up to their promise, and glad to welcome them to the list of groups whose work depends on better digital disclosure. There are a number of pending transparency promises still waiting to be addressed, (like legislation crafted in the dark, or disclosure for all regulatory lobbying meetings), but Ethics.gov is a good one to have taken a big first step on.
Update, 3/8/2012 11:50 AM:
So far it looks like two particularly exciting things available through the new interface are 1) OGE travel reports, which weren’t easy to get before, and 2) the ability to search for a name and see their White House visits alongside their campaign contributions. That’s a pretty exciting view. (I’d link to examples, but the site’s down at the moment.)
Here’s an example: https://explore.data.gov/catalog/ethics?q=podesta&x=0&y=0
Coverage from Kevin Bogardus at the Hill: http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technology/214961-white-house-launches-ethics-site-that-obama-promised-in-2008