Monday, March 16, 2009

Hawaii isn't all about sunshine

Hawaii isn’t the best or the worst, but is smack in the middle of a recent report rating states on the openness of government documents.

The Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information ranked Hawaii 26th in the list of 50 states, based on online access to a range of government reports. Hawaii provided 11 of the 20 reports studied. Texas ranked first, providing all 20 of the reports. Mississippi ranked last, providing only four.

The state was ranked high for posting details such as statewide school test data, political campaign contributions and expenses, disciplinary actions against physicians, audit reports, teacher certifications, fictitious business name registrations, database of expenditures, consumer complaints, personal financial disclosure reports and school inspection and safety records.

But Hawaii lost points for not providing disciplinary actions against attorneys, environmental citations and violations, nursing home inspection reports, bridge inspection and safety reports, child care center inspection reports, hospital inspection reports, school bus inspections, gas pump overcharge records and death certificates.

Researchers noted that The state Ethics Commission Web site posts multiyear disclosure PDF files for state representatives, senators, the governor and lieutenant governor, members of the Board of Education, trustees and administrators of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, department heads and their deputies, and judiciary administrators, but the courts do not post disclosures for judges.

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

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

Information most frequently found online were statewide school test scores and DOT projects/contracts, online in 50 and 48 states, respectively. Close behind was campaign data, reported in 47 of the 50 states; disciplinary actions against medical physicians, 47 states; and financial audits, 44 states.

Death certificates are apparently a revenue source for many states, as they charge relatives and "legitimately" interested parties for copies of the records, or farm out the work to a third-party service such as VitalChek. Some states provide historical access online to older death certificates, mostly prior to 1960, although there generally is a fee for hard copies.

The results were released Sunday at the start of Sunshine Week 2009, which runs March 15-21. The study was developed by Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Freedom of Information Committee, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the Society of Professional Journalists' FOI Committee.

"This study shows that, while a lot of government information is available online, many states lag in providing important information that people care about," David Cuillier, Freedom of Information Committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, said in a statement. "People should be able to find inspection records for their schools online. And the government shouldn't be charging people for death certificates and other records."

The state government surveys were conducted by newspaper and broadcast journalists, journalism students, state press associations, and reporters and editors from The Associated Press. Several participants went the extra cyber-mile and helped complete surveys outside their own states.

"This is the first comprehensive survey of its kind," said ASNE FOI Committee Co-chair Andrew 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.

"We know that providing public records in digital form is the right thing to do for citizens. But it's also the smart thing to do," added Alexander, who is ombudsman for The Washington Post. "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."