Principles for Transparency in Government

Public oversight, civic participation and electoral engagement—the stuff of democratic accountability—all depend on a transparent, open government. Indeed, transparency and openness are the very foundations for public trust; without the former the latter cannot survive.

The Internet is making increased transparency cheaper, more effective, and in more demand every day as Americans come to expect instantaneous and constant access to all kinds of information. Given the rapid technological advances in how information can be captured, stored, analyzed and shared, the Sunlight Foundation believes it is time to update and expand government’s transparency mandate:

Transparency is Government’s Responsibility

Transparency must first and foremost be understood as government’s responsibility, since public demand and private/non­profit responses can reach only so far. Accordingly, both Congress and the Executive Branch must make broad changes in our federal information and technology policies to establish on­line public access as a priority for virtually all the operations of the federal government.

Public Means Online

Whatever information the government has or commits to making public, the standard for “public” should include “freely accessible online.” Information cannot be considered public if it is available only inside a government building, during limited hours or for a fee. In the 21st century, information is properly described as “public” only if it is available online, 24/7, for free, in some kind of reasonably parse­able format. Almost all of our public sphere is now online, and our public information should be there, too.

Data Quality and Presentation Matter

The Internet has redefined effective communications and publishing. It is a 24/7 open medium, in which now­ standard practices include continuous, contemporaneous dissemination, permanent searchability and reusability, among other key features.

The government must adopt the principles that all information and data that the government has decided or hereafter decides should be public must be

  • (i) posted online promptly
  • (ii) complete and accurate
  • (iii) searchable and manipulable and
  • (iv) permanently preserved and accessible.

Among these four, timeliness is particularly vital for information concerning any ongoing decision making process, such as legislation or regulation. Disclosure should move at the same pace as influence over such decisions; thus arbitrary periodic filing requirements (e.g., annual, quarterly or monthly) violate this standard and render postings less useful to facilitate trust and participation.

Fortunately, the Internet enables inexpensive real­-time publishing, such as real-­time updates we have come to expect for news and stock market transactions. These standards of contemporaneous disclosure are particularly important when it comes to disclosure of lobbying contacts, consideration of legislation, promulgation of regulations or awarding of grants and contracts.

Our government’s role as an information provider has evolved along with our ability to communicate. 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.

More open and transparent government can foster more competent and trustworthy behavior by public officials along with a more engaged public.