R.I. General Assembly receives poor marks on transparency

A nonprofit group gave the legislature a ‘D’ grade, citing the difficulty of finding legislative data

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Rhode Island General Assembly earned a grade of D on a transparency report card released last month by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to increasing government openness.

The report graded data presented on the websites of all 50 states’ legislatures using six criteria — thoroughness, promptness, accessibility, use of different electronic formats, quality and availability of archival information, said Liz Bartolomeo, media director at the Sunlight Foundation.

To evaluate each state’s website, Sunlight staff members checked the availability of roll calls, bill texts and legislators’ phone numbers and email addresses, Bartolomeo said.

The analysis focuses solely on the transparency of state legislatures and does not incorporate the governors’ offices or state agencies into its calculations.

Researchers looked at how quickly bills were placed online after being introduced. They also judged how well the format of the data enabled other programs to access the information and help independent groups analyze government policy, she said.

“We believe technology can harness government to make it more accountable,” Bartolomeo said. “We create data tools for the public, journalists and researchers so you can know what government is doing.”

This ranking is part of the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States initiative, in which the foundation partners with tech-savvy “civic hacker” volunteers to put information about government activity online, she said.

Open States is the “only website where you can put in a term like ‘gun control’ and see (which) states have passed legislation on that issue,” Bartolomeo said.

When the foundation initially released the report card last month, Rhode Island received a grade of F. Within 48 hours, General Assembly staff members contacted Sunlight to correct a mistake — the legislature updates its website in real time, not on a weekly basis as the report originally stated.

“We challenge the accuracy in some of the areas of the rankings, and we are reaching out to the Sunlight Foundation to rectify it,” Greg Pare, director of communications for the Rhode Island Senate and Larry Berman, director of communications for the Rhode Island House wrote in a press release. “We are continually striving to upgrade our website.”

In response, Sunlight increased the state’s score in the “timeliness” category, which upgraded Rhode Island from an F to a D.

Bartolomeo cited real-time updates as a strength for Rhode Island but added that the state lost points because it lacked historical data relating to bills.

Neighboring states received dramatically different results on the report card. Connecticut was among eight states to receive As, while Massachusetts joined five other states that received Fs.

Massachusetts suffered from numerous problems with its website, including poor reporting of roll calls, unavailable voting data and a lack of historical information, as well as technical failures of the website, according to the Open States website.

Connecticut stood out because its archives allowed for reference and research of the legislative record, Bartolomeo said.

“Each state can use this report card as a guide to improve,” Bartolomeo said.

Since the Sunlight Foundation released its report card, the Rhode Island General Assembly has added live video streaming as well as video archives to its website, though these changes were planned before the report card was released, Pare wrote in an email to The Herald. A bill tracking feature will also be available on the website in the future, Pare wrote.

Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and former University political science professor, said he was not surprised by Rhode Island’s poor showing on the transparency report card. In the past, Rhode Island has received similarly poor grades on transparency from other organizations, he said.

“Rhode Island needs to be more active in promoting transparency,” West said. “As we’ve moved into the digital age, their website needs to do a better job of providing information.”

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