Indiana Lags in Government Transparency Efforts

March 16, 2009

For release March 18 and thereafter (670 words)

You can find almost anything on the Internet these days, but in Indiana you won’t find on government websites such useful information as political campaign contributions, disciplinary actions against doctors and lawyers, environmental citations or a thorough accounting of state agency expenditures.

Yet all those records are available in most other states, according to the just-released Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information Online.

The survey was the first of its kind and suggests Indiana has much work to do to get its records widely available in digitized format, considered the key to open government in the 21st century.

To conduct the survey, researchers scanned government web sites in all 50 states in search of 20 different types of public records. The categories were selected for “generally serving the overall public good — the kind of information people need for their own health and well-being and that of the community.” The one state posting all 20 online was Texas. New Jersey provided 18.

Indiana provided records in only seven of the categories: school testing data, transportation projects and contracts, audit reports, nursing home inspection reports, consumer complaints, personal financial disclosure reports and hospital inspection reports. Neighboring states Michigan and Ohio offered online records in 15 of the categories and Illinois in 10.
 
“Digital technologies can be a great catalyst for democracy, but the state of access today is quite uneven,” noted Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, which co-sponsored the survey along with three other good government groups.

Information found most easily were statewide school test scores and Department of Transportation projects/contracts, both available in Indiana. Least likely to be found online were death certificates and gas pump overcharge records, neither of which are available here.

Citizens in a majority of states, 28, can go online to get a database of state expenditures, something under consideration now by the Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill 1280, introduced by Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington, would require posting of expenditures and account balances by all state agencies and public universities. Welch said she filed the bill and then learned something similar was in the works by the Daniels administration and Auditor Tim Berry. The goal, she said, is more transparency and accountability.

Welch’s bill is modeled after the law in Texas, which has proven to be tremendously popular. “People want to know how their tax dollars are being spent,” she said. Her bill passed the House 97-0 and awaits action in the Senate.

One other bill this session would improve Indiana’s standing in the transparency ranking. Senate Bill 232, sponsored by Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, would allow judges to impose fines of up to $500 on government agencies that break public access laws.  It would also require agencies to email interested citizens or post on their websites advance notice of public meetings. That bill passed the Senate 49-0 and is before the House.

Demands for more transparency have grown louder in light of the huge amount of taxpayer dollars committed to the economic stimulus package. The Center for Democracy & Technology and OpenTheGovernment.org recently announced a Show Us The Data campaign on the federal level to encourage posting of federal spending data in user-friendly formats.

Last month, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn ordered state agencies to be more responsive in fulfilling public records requests and to make more information available online. In response to the resignation of a cabinet official over income from speaking fees, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger March 6 required his staff to post personal financial forms on the governor’s website. In South Dakota, lawmakers on March 11 approved an overhaul of public records laws, which included requirements for information to be posted and searchable online.

An incidental benefit of online records is that they save taxpayer money. As Andrew Alexander, spokesman for the Sunshine Week project, noted, “With state budgets under considerable stress, providing public records in digitized form is less costly because it doesn’t require a human to process each request for information.”

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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