America's 10 Most Wanted Federal Documents

 
 
By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-03-20 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

President Obama has declared that the federal government should be more open and transparent to the public. The Center for Democracy and Technology and OpenTheGovernment.org have a top 10 list of what documents and information the public wants.

As Washington bureaucracies attempt to deal with President Obama's mandate to make the government more transparent to the public, the Center for Democracy and Technology and OpenTheGovernment.org released a report March 20 identifying the public's 10 most wanted government documents. (PDF)

The report is "based on an interactive, user-driven search to identify the most sought-after unclassified government documents and information." The report also "includes policy recommendations for making government more transparent," the organizations said in news release.

"Members of the public have the right to access the unclassified data and documents created and held by the government. After all, the information was paid for with tax dollars," the report states. "The suggestions from the public make it clear that information across all branches need to be made available."

The report says "significant loopholes" in public access laws have eroded the public's "access to and faith in government information."

"The public is speaking loudly and clearly; they want all branches of our federal government to make the information they hold in trust for us available, accessible, findable and usable," Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said in a statement. "We encourage the public to stay engaged and help us make sure these changes happen."

CDT's and OpenTheGovernment.org's Top 10:

1. All Congressional Research Service Reports [...] The Congressional Research Service (CRS) uses taxpayer dollars to produce excellent reports on public policy issues ranging from foreign affairs, to agriculture, to health care. These reports are made accessible to Congress and their staff through on an internal system, and these are never released to the public directly from the Congressional Research Service. Members of the public can ask for these reports through their member of Congress, but they must first know that the report exists. Third party websites, such as Open CRS, collect and share the reports for free but for years the only way to get reports was to buy from third party, for profit companies. [...]

2. Information About the Use of TARP and Bailout Funds

[...] The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) authorized the use of taxpayer money to purchase assets from financial institutions that were struggling. After $300 billion in bailout money was distributed, the actual use of this money by individual companies is still largely unknown. [...]

3. Open and Accessible Federal Court Documents Through the PACER System

[...] The Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, also known as the PACER system, received the highest number of votes of any document not included in the previous surveys. The PACER system provides federal court records, including opinions in cases with wide-reaching public repercussions. The public does not have access to these legal precedents, however, without high barriers. The PACER system provides federal court records, but only after the user has previously registered for a password (received via posted mail). The system also charges far more per page than it costs PACER to serve the PDF to the user. In fact, PACER makes a large profit based on these burdensome fees. [...]

4. Current Contractor Projects

[...]The federal budget includes billions of dollars for unclassified federal contracts every year, but little information is available about these contracts. These contracts vary from routine maintenance of the White House to the private security forces in Iraq. While limited information about contracts awarded is available online at USASpending.gov, details about the contracts is not. Information about deliverables for each contract [is] not made public, and there is no public information on sub-contracts, despite a requirement under the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act to begin sub-award reporting on USASpending.gov by January 2009. A full accounting of these contractors would give a more realistic estimate of the size and more information to help understand the effectiveness of government.

5. Court Settlements Involving Federal Agencies

[...] When a dispute involving a federal agency (or even a branch of government) cannot be settled, it occasionally goes to court. A federal court always presides over these cases and, because monetary settlements are unusual, these cases rarely make the papers, and the opinions and terms of settlement are seldom released. Most cases involving agencies settle, and settlements are nearly invisible. A U.S. District Court judgment-including by settlement-against a government agency, is a matter that should be disclosed to the public, without any special request required.

6. Access to Comprehensive Information About Legislation and Congressional Actions via THOMAS or Public Access to Legislative Information Service

[...] THOMAS' legislative information provides just a drop in the bucket of information that should be available. Voting records of Members of Congress are public information, for example, and yet countless Members continue to make efforts to prevent the creation of a government-sponsored website to make all their individually-identifiable decisions as public officials easily available. Numerous effective third-party websites exist, but full disclosure and open government require an official Congressionally-sponsored website. [...]

7. Online Access to Electronic Campaign Disclosures

[...] The Senate is still using a hard copy system for filing campaign finance reports, although the reports are usually generated as electronic documents. As a result of paper filing and because of the processing time needed by Federal Election Commission, final disclosure reports of senatorial candidates only become available to the voting public after elections. During the 110th Congress, legislation to require Senators to file FEC reports electronically was approved by the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, but was never brought to the floor for a vote. [...]

8. Daily Schedules of the President and Cabinet Officials

[...] Presidents have made their daily schedule available to reporters for years, but have never posted them online, despite great interest in the president's actions and who the president and his advisors meet with. Griffin Bell, Attorney General under President Carter, was the first cabinet secretary to make his schedule regularly available. Only a few others have followed his lead in over 30 years. To achieve transparency, we need to know what our White House officials are doing.

9. Personal Financial Disclosures from Policymakers Across Government

[...] An overarching theme of the document requests was the desire for the highest level of financial disclosure possible from policymakers, including timely campaign finance information from the Senate (one of the top voted documents). During difficult economic times, the voting public is especially concerned with tracking conflicts of interest between elected and appointed officials and the entities they regulate. Requests for financial activity disclosures were made across all branches. All branches should make an accelerated effort to improve their financial disclosure efforts. [...]

10. State Medicaid Plans and Waivers

[...] Medicaid State plans amendments and waivers are documents each state has that describe their Medicaid programs and all rules and amendments that have been made and approved by the federal government. These plans are ... very hard to find in their current locations. Historically, the plans have been on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website-the same goes for waivers. However, the documents on the site are usually not current, and sometimes are not accurate. [...]

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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