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Survey finds many states lagging in online records

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Americans can easily learn about their state songs and state flowers with a search on the Internet, but most will have a harder time checking whether their children's school buses are safe or a local gas station is charging too much.

A 50-state survey of government information accessible online, conducted as part of the annual Sunshine Week campaign, found that while official records are increasingly available on the Internet, some important information is missing.

To conduct the survey, teams of journalists and journalism students scanned government websites in every state to look for 20 kinds of public records. The results were released today at the start of Sunshine Week, a national initiative by journalism organizations to focus on open government and access to information.

Surveyors assessed such factors as whether the information was up-to-date and clearly linked, if full reports or only summaries were available, and whether viewing and downloading were free.

"Digital technologies can be a great catalyst for democracy, but the state of access today is quite uneven," said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, one of the groups overseeing the survey.

"The future of freedom of information is online access, and states have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of electronic self-governance," he said.

Also involved in the project were Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Freedom of Information Committee and the Society of Professional Journalists' FOI Committee.

The surveyed categories included school test scores, financial disclosures, audit reports, transportation projects, fraudulent registration of business names, disciplinary actions against lawyers and physicians, and inspection reports for hospitals, nursing homes, child care centers, bridges, school buildings and school buses.

The information least likely to be found online were death certificates, found on the websites of only five states, and gas pump overcharge records, available online in eight. Also infrequently posted online were schools building inspections and safety ratings, which are posted by only nine states, and school bus inspection reports, which 13 states posted.

"People should be able to find inspection records for their schools online," said David Cuillier, FOI Committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists. "And the government shouldn't be charging people for death certificates and other records."

Information found most often online were statewide school test scores, available in all states, and Department of Transportation projects, posted in 48 states. Campaign finance data and disciplinary actions against physicians were available in 47 states.

The only state found to provide information online in all 20 categories was Texas. New Jersey was second with 18, North Carolina third with 17.

The state with the sparsest information online was Mississippi.

It posted only DOT projects, fictitious business registrations, school test scores and campaign finance data. Though it did post some information about hospitals and nursing homes, surveyors said these were perfunctory lists, not inspection reports.

Mississippi's low ranking is linked both to tight budgets in many state agencies and to the state's relative lack of home computers. It ranks near the bottom in percentage of households with Internet access, providing some agencies with a rationale for not investing more funds in online initiatives.

Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government, said any progress that state officials did make toward online access might be limited as long as many Mississippi homes lacked high-speed Internet service.

"It's starting to be assumed that people will have some form of Internet access -- and there are rural areas in Mississippi and other states that don't," he said. "There's going to be a rural-urban gulf as far as access to government is concerned."

North Carolina was rated one of the best states at posting records online, but the survey said they are often hard to find, infrequently updated and available only piecemeal.

For example, the main state government website lists hospitals, schools and nursing homes, but details about safety inspection of those institutions aren't posted. A visitor to the site can make an online request for some records, such as safety reports on child care centers, but the records themselves are mailed -- a process that can take weeks.

Mike McCabe, director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, credited his state with making more records easily accessible online but cited a financial-disclosure law that might deter some people seeking information.

"If you want to see one of these reports, your name, the requester, is revealed to the public official. That has a chilling effect for many citizens," he said. "A lot of people may not want their state legislator to know they are looking into their financial holdings. An attorney may not want a judge to know he is looking at his financial holdings."

Tennessee was among many states getting mixed reviews -- surveyors said it has no comprehensive database for state spending and doesn't put a variety of inspection reports online, including those for hospitals, child care centers, and school buses and buildings.

"Tennessee has made some improvements on fiscal transparency," said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. "But it is still in the horse-and-buggy days in providing information that the public needs on health and safety."

The surveys were conducted by newspaper and broadcast journalists, journalism students, state press associations, and reporters and editors from The Associated Press.

"This is the first comprehensive survey of its kind," said ASNE FOI Committee co-chair Andy Alexander. "It tells us that many states understand that digitizing public records is key to open government in the 21st century. But it also tells us that, with a few exceptions, states have a long way to go before they become truly transparent.

While acknowledging that states are under fiscal stress, Alexander said providing public records online is "the smart thing to do" -- saving money because no civil servant is needed to process each information request.


Associated Press writers Chris Talbott in Jackson, Miss.; Robert Imrie in Wausau, Wis.; Barbara Rodriguez in Raleigh, N.C.; and Kristin Hall in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.


On the Net:

http://www.sunshineweek.org/


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