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Analysis: The good and the bad on Rhode Island’s new transparency site


By Tim White, investigative reporter, WPRI-TV; director, New England First Amendment Coalition 

There’s a lot to like about Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s new transparency website. There’s also room for improvement.

Chafee signed an executive order Thursday officially launching the new site. He said it follows through on one of his campaign promises to make Rhode Island government more transparent, and he hopes it will save taxpayer money by – over time – reducing the number of public records requests that state employees have to deal with.

“Just go online, make it easier and save taxpayer dollars by not having these state employees shuffle through the bureaucracy to answer these requests,” Chafee said. “That’s what we should be doing, making it easy.”

The website - www.transparency.ri.gov - includes some government contracts and revenue data. Officials said more information will be constantly added and described the launch as phase one in a six-phase process that will take about 18 months.

Here’s a closer look at what’s good and what’s not so good about the site.

The good:

-The philosophy of making government more transparent. Whether or not you like the look of the website, and whether or not you find it user-friendly, the fact that the current administration made it a priority is, quite simply, good.

-Users can search government contracts by department. If you want to see who won the bid to replace the massive freezer at the Department of Corrections and how much it cost, you can find it. (Answer: $1.1 million.) Right now only contracts that are valued at more than $1 million are posted, but the governor’s office said they are adding more and expect another round of information to be posted in the spring.

-Users can find out how much money each state agency takes in, then spends, and on what. The data is from the previous fiscal year.

-Users can check to see if a state agency is meeting its performance measures. This will likely be the least-used function on the site, but it’s there. The idea is each department has its own metric for meeting its goals (think “wait times” at the Department of Motor Vehicles). How are they doing with that? You can find out.

-If users can’t find what they’re looking for, there is an easy-to-use form to request information under the state’s Access to Public Records Act.

Chief Digital Officer Thomas Guertin said the requests will be tracked so they can use them as a real-time survey.

“As we start to collect APRA requests through this process we will be able to build a knowledge base and be able to offer what the most commonly requested documents are,” Guertin said. “So you can self-serve on the site.”

The not-so-good:

-It’s brand spanking new so there isn’t a lot of data – yet. For instance, if you want to know how much University of Rhode Island basketball coach Dan Hurley makes, you won’t find it. But Guertin said that information is “slotted for later phases.”

Also in the works is information from the state’s numerous quasi-public agencies, like the troubled R.I. Economic Development Corporation or the R.I. Airport Corporation, which runs T.F. Green.

-The website only includes the executive branch of state government. If you want to view government contracts for the judicial or legislative branches, you won’t find them here. Although the General Assembly and the judiciary have their own websites, Director of Administration Richard Licht said someday he’d like to see all the state data under one digital roof.

“They are separate independent branches of government,” Licht said. “We do not run the judiciary or legislative branch but we would welcome their participation.”

-The government contracts aren’t searchable, and that’s frustrating and silly in 2013. The reason, officials say, is contracts are literally scanned in and presented as a PDF. Guertin said state law would need to be changed to make the contracts digital (and thus searchable). The digital team – fancily titled the Office of Digital Excellence – did its best to work around the annoyance by adding a robust set of criteria you can use to narrow the search, but the law should be changed.

-Budget information is only included for the previous fiscal year, so citizens can’t compare the expenditures of state departments going back through the years. But Chafee spokesperson Christine Hunsinger said the administration plans on keeping each year’s data available as they continue to add more. So in ten years, we’ll have a nice trend to examine.

One potential addition to the website drew concern from members of the media. Guertin said his team is looking into posting pending public records requests online with a ticker that would show when the request was going to be filled. In the hyper-competitive world of journalism, the last thing reporters want is “the other guy” to see what they’re working on.

But that option doesn’t seem to be a priority. Plus, it’s unclear if it would be in conflict with the current law that allows anonymity for those requesting records: Individuals are not required to supply government agencies with a name when they ask for data.

The bottom line on the website is this: Time will tell. The site will only be as good as the information it offers. Guertin said his office just hired a new employee and will expand to a staff of 10 over time.

But will it last? Governor Chafee thinks it’s a priority, but who knows if future executives will feel the same way?

Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion – a government transparency crusader – lauded the announcement and took an optimistic view of the website’s future no matter who holds the top job.

“It sounds like they’re trying to build self-sustaining access to information,” Marion said. “They are trying to make it a part of existing employees’ jobs to feed the information into this portal, and if that’s what they’re doing, and it sounds like they are, then I think it will last.”

 

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