New Legislation Will Bring Light to Government’s Dark Spaces

New Legislation Will Bring Light to Government

On Tuesday, Rep. Steve Israel (D-New York) introduced a banner piece of legislation to create greater governmental transparency by making public government information available online. The bill, the Public Online Information Act (POIA), directly confronts the problem that massive quantities of government data and documentation are still largely inaccessible because they are difficult to find and difficult to read, despite being designated as “public,”according to Israel.

“Right now, our government will stamp something ‘public’ and lock it away in a warehouse in Maryland. That’s about as accessible and transparent as a nuclear missile silo,”said Representative Israel. “It’s time for ‘public’ to mean something different. My bill will require that all executive branch agencies make their public documents easily available online. People across the country – from scholars to school children – should be able to see any public government information from the convenience of their computer.”

POIA would mandate that executive branch agencies publish all publicly available information online in a timely fashion and in user-friendly formats within three years of the bill being signed. The bill also creates a new panel that brings together all branches of government to create guidelines for information sharing and requires each agency to establish a searchable catalog of all disclosed public documents.

Information that is required by law to be public, but is not available online include: filings by high level government officials of their personal financial interests; reports of instances when executive branch travel is paid for by third-parties, and not the government; reports disclosing lobbying activities by government contractors and grantees made in connection with winning a grant.

Israel, a member of the House Appropriations Committee currently serving his fifth term as the representative of New York’s Second District in central Long Island, was joined by Sunlight Foundation Co-Founder and Executive Director Ellen Miller and Personal Democracy Forum Founder Andrew Rasiej. Miller and Rasiej played a significant role in developing POIA, following a 2009 Personal Democracy Forum panel discussion where all three participated.

“POIA will not only make it easier for citizens to find government information that belongs to them by simply using the Internet, it will redefine what the term ‘public information’ means for democracy and civic life in the 21st century,”Rasiej said. “By sponsoring this bill Congressman Israel will challenge our government to rethink and reorganize the way information is provided to citizens and will lead to more transparency and accountability.”

“The Sunlight Foundation is proud to support the Public Online Information Act, legislation that embraces a new formula for transparency: public equals online,”said Miller. “We commend Rep. Israel for his work to ensure that government information will be available to everyone within a few keystrokes on a computer.”

In addition to the Sunlight Foundation and the Personal Democracy Forum, more than 25 organizations have called for Congressional hearings on POIA, including the Center for Media and Democracy, Center for Responsive Politics, Federation of American Scientists and The Project on Government Oversight.

As of this filing, the bill has no co-sponsors listed.

Not all governmental information will be available, however. The legislation includes a sunrise provision that would mandate only newly created data be made available after enactment, not previously released government information. POIA would allow certain commonsense exceptions, such as documents that fulfill national security specification.

The unveiling of POIA falls in the middle of Sunshine Week, a national initiative primarily funded by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and led by the American Society of News Editors, with participants consisting of journalists, civic groups, nonprofits, libraries and individuals to open dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. According to the event’s web site, “Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.”

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.