April 6, 2011
Data enthusiasts may be cringing at proposed federal cuts to transparency websites, but the Texas Senate passed a bill today that would promote state transparency by requiring agencies to post “high-value” data sets online. According to the bill analysis, “data that is critical to the financial and programmatic function of state agencies,” must be posted within two clicks of the agency’s homepage so it can be easily found.
The bill also requires data to be posted in a raw, open source format so the public can analyze and use it.
“Today, transparency is having data that is raw data. The idea of just slapping up a PDF is over,” Sherri Greenberg, professor and interim director of Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, told senators last week. “Certainly we need those reports, and we need the context, but it’s of benefit to everyone — if you’re not incurring costs — to be able to have this data that’s readily available.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, author of the bill, says there will be no fiscal impact. Agencies will only be required to post data online if they can use existing resources or obtain grants. But with the budget belt tightening, it’s difficult to say where the resources for data transparency will come from.
The Texas bill comes up as the federal government is slashing funding for data transparency websites, including Data.gov, USAspending.gov and Apps.gov. Groups such as the Sunlight Foundation and Flowing Data are scrambling to prevent what they say are devastating cuts, which could cause government transparency websites to shut down altogether. The San Francisco Chronicle reports the White House has recommended budgeting $35 million to maintain the websites, but current proposals plummet spending to $2 million in the U.S. House version and $20 million in the U.S. Senate version.
Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, argued transparency saves money by making state agencies more accountable and lessening the number of open records requests. “The comptroller has already led the way showing that there are cost savings,” he said. “It’s information that belongs to the taxpayers. Let them slice and dice it.”
The Texas Transparency website, monitored by Susan Combs and the Texas Comptroller’s office, provides data on state agency spending — “where the money goes.” It also aggregates links to local government data, experiments with data visualizations and has an open catalog of other data from the Comptroller’s office.
“The state has successfully promoted online transparency at the local level,” Watson said. “State agencies should follow this lead by providing more data about their operations online.”