Disclosure doesn’t belong in the back of a filing cabinet

by and
A stack of filing cabinets stretching towards the sky with clouds in the background.
Filing Cabinets via Flickr user Nick Perez

Senate campaign finance documents. House disbursement information. Important regulatory filings. Time and again throughout our work we have come across vital government information collections that have not been updated for the 21st century.

Sometimes, this information is collected on paper, only to be scanned and uploaded later, if at all. Other times, regardless of how it is collected, it is printed and left to rot in a filing cabinet, only uncovered when an intrepid researcher has the time and resources to seek it out in person.

Collecting and storing important public documents offline-only has significant implications for an accountable, efficient government: it dramatically limits information’s ability to create both accountability and efficiency within government. More importantly perhaps, it has significant implications for the safety of our society and our planet.

We reacted with pain and dismay when, in the wake of the devastating 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it was revealed that relevant “public” inspection reports were nowhere to be found online.  These documents should have raised numerous red flags, but they were essentially inaccessible by journalists, the public, and even government employees, who only recognized hazards in retrospect.

Failing to collect and post public information electronically impacts accountability in our politics and institutions. It can also cost a lot of money. We have long been calling for the United States Senate to upgrade its antiquated system for filing campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission. Adopting an e-filing system, like the one that exists for Presidential and House candidates as well as Political Action Committees will make it easier to hold Senators accountable for the way they raise and spend campaign money. We should be able to see who has donated to Senate campaigns before elections are actually held. It would also save more than $400,000 every year.

Disclosure systems should work as effectively as possible, and in 2014, that means digitally. Electronically collected information can easily be put online, turned into usable data, widely distributed, and even printed on demand.

Throughout our work, Sunlight has identified numerous government information resources that are not optimized for the internet age. When we stumble across one of these, we point out that these outdated filings are opportunities lost, excluding information from the public interest they were designed to serve.

This should be a problem that can be addressed across government: How often are paper-based filing systems wasting money and preventing meaningful disclosure? Unfortunately, there is no easy systematic way to figure out where digital upgrades should replace paper-based filings.

If vital information is denied to voters until after elections, and key environmental and economic information is poorly collected from those enriched by US mineral wealth — where else have our once-modern disclosure systems atrophied into obscurity?

The GAO should undertake a review of government information collections, with an eye towards assessing the cost savings and increased accountability that would be realized by replacing paper filings with e-filing and online access.