Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Model Transparency Act Should Point the Way for Maryland

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a free market-oriented member organization of state legislators, recently adopted new model legislation that sets some baseline government transparency standards. Maryland should consider either adopting ALEC's Transparency and Government Accountability Act or measuring its current open public records practices against ALEC's model and making changes to state law to bring greater governmental transparency.

The focus of ALEC's Transparency and Government Accountability Act is on having state governments make more records available to citizens online in a free and accessible format. Although states have their own Public Records or Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) – such as Maryland's Public Information Act – those statutes essentially place the burden on citizens to make requests for records and pay appropriate fees in order to obtain access to public information.

And records requests sometimes encounter government officials' stonewalling that includes state-claimed exemptions or privileges from disclosure that ultimately require repeated requests or even litigation to resolve. When states require public disclosure of information as their default practice they provide citizens with easier access records from the outset. This reduces the frequency of citizens having to request records, and also reduces the administrative costs of government in responding to individual requests.

The Sunshine Standard, a website providing tools for improving government transparency, has made the model legislation available at its website. In particular, the ALEC model requires states to maintain an official, searchable website using a consistent domain that makes available a variety of information, including: open public meetings laws, schedules, and agendas; budget information, including spending and revenue information and state payments, elected official and administrative official information; state ethics laws and ethics commission process and enforcement information; state auditing information; government contracting and procurement information; lobbying registration and state agency lobbying contractual information; and state FOIA information.

Maryland transparency laws already make a lot of this information available. For instance, the Maryland Attorney General's office has a page dedicated to the Open Meetings Act, providing access to the laws, information about the Open Meeting Law Compliance Board, and an Open Meetings Act Manual. Likewise, the Maryland Department of Budget and Management provides access to considerable state budget information as well as government contracting and procurement information. And Maryland's Office of Legislative Audits provides information online. For instance, the website of the Maryland's State Ethics Commission is not especially user- or information-friendly, with a confusing advisory opinions section. What's more, whereas the ALEC model calls for information to be posted online about the status of investigations and enforcement actions, Maryland law requires that such investigations and enforcements be strictly confidential until final orders are issued. So no status updates can be found on the State Ethics Commission's site. In any event, Maryland does not currently make the information it already provides available at or linked from a consistent website domain as called for in the ALEC Model.

What's more, providing search indexes could also allow citizens to better analyze disclosed data. Insights can often be drawn from cross-referencing existing records, in particular. For example, a searchable site could provide an easy way to gain information about how much money a government contractor donated to the campaign of an elected official. Consideration of the ALEC model should also prompt states such as Maryland to consider not only making additional information more easily obtainable but also to revising their agency practices to become more transparent and open.

Of course, any comprehensive approach to government transparency should also include local governments. Citizens have often encountered enormous obstacles to obtaining access to government information at the local level. (See, for instance, this Washington Post op-ed from earlier this year, "Maryland's Fake Open Government.") Since counties, cities, and other governmental subdivisions are routinely delegated taxing, condemning, zoning and other regulatory powers, those local governments should adhere to standards of transparency too. States seeking to revamp and expand government transparency in light of ALEC's model should at the very least also consider applying it to local governments where relevant and where possible.

Transparency and open government should be an easy issue for bi-partisan and cross-ideological agreement. ALEC's Transparency and Government Accountability Act provides an excellent framework for states to consider. Maryland citizens could stand to benefit from a re-examination of their state's transparency laws and practices in light of the new ALEC model legislation.