Releasing information about assets of local government officials empowers public oversight of potential conflicts of interest.
Unfortunately, most local governments in the United States release limited information from asset disclosures, and much of this information is not shared as open data. There are a few steps that can be taken to improve the release of this information. We’ve crafted recommendations for how the information can be collected and shared using best practices from our Open Data Policy Guidelines.
1. Require disclosed information to be published online — In this age of technology, public information should be posted online. This provides the public access to important information without the time and cost of making a public records request. It also saves government officials time and money by proactively posting information rather than providing it on an as-requested basis. Asset disclosures should be shared online through a central portal that includes important context information about ordinances impacting disclosures, shining a light on details like who has to disclose and when. These portals can help ensure permanent, lasting access to the information and should come without restrictions on accessing and reusing the data, subject to minimal exceptions.
2. Publish information as open, structured data — Publishing information in an open format ensures that information is in a machine-readable, or structured, format, making it easy to search and sort. This increases opportunities for the public to analyze and reuse the data.
3. Require electronic filing — Electronic filing means gathering information in an electronic format from the beginning of the disclosure process, enabling easier sharing of data in open formats with the public. E-filing, as it is sometimes called, makes asset disclosure a simpler process for those filing and for those collecting and sharing the data. It is easier for governments to collect data this way rather than reading handwritten forms and spending time putting that information into a computer (which can result in inaccuracies, too). It’s also easier for filers to have a consistent, online, easy-to-access interface for submitting information.
4. Release information in real-time — Releasing asset disclosures in real time can help empower public oversight of potential conflicts of interest as government decisions approach rather than after decisions have been made. Even monthly or quarterly updates to disclosure would be better than requiring only annual or semi-annual reports, which can grow out of date quickly as a person’s assets change. E-filing would help ensure that more frequent reporting does not need to mean a repetitive process: filers could simply update existing forms with any relevant changes since the last reporting deadline.
5. Publish bulk data — Allowing asset disclosures to be downloaded in bulk — meaning all of the information can be exported at once — maximizes opportunities for analysis across individual filings, helping to draw out narratives about influence. Bulk downloads also work with open, structured formats to allow for easy analysis and reuse of data.
6. Appropriately safeguard sensitive information — By the nature of asset disclosures, some of the information from these documents is sensitive. That is why some disclosures are only made internally within governments on an as-needed basis, as potential conflicts of interest arise. Disclosure procedures can also be impacted by factors such as the level of responsibility or the stage of a project — sometimes asset disclosures are part of a job negotiation, for example. Those who hold information from asset disclosures need to think about redacting information that could infringe on the privacy or security of those associated with the data, but the exemptions should not be a barrier to data release. Any exemptions to public disclosure should be balance-tested against the public interest in accessing that information.