Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A New Twist in Government Transparency

Earlier this month, the White House announced that for the first time in history, its visitor log will be made available to the public on a rolling 90-day delay. The automatic publication will begin with visits after September 15, which will be published by December 31, 2009; records of visits dating from the Obama inauguration to September 15 may now be requested on a case-by-case basis at http://www.whitehouse.gov/RequestVisitorRecords/.

The reversal comes after several lawsuits from advocacy groups, which sought information on visits by a number of health care industry executives. The Obama administration agreed to the “voluntary” disclosure policy in order to settle the lawsuits, but maintains the historical White House position that release of the visitor logs is not actually required under the Freedom of Information Act. (Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also resisted the release of visitor records during their time in office, and both relented only after legal pressures mounted. Story.)

Although the names of purely personal and “exceptionally sensitive” visitors will still be withheld from disclosure, the policy represents an important step toward greater government transparency. Researchers have long used publicly-available campaign contribution data as a tool for measuring the potential influence of particular special interests on an administration; it’s not hard to imagine incorporating data on White House visitors into such an assessment. Expect interesting mash-up projects from government watchdog groups like the Sunlight Foundation, OpenSecrets.org, and the Center for Public Integrity.

In the meantime, if you’d like to research similar lobbying and campaign finance data at the state politics level, check out Follow the Money, Unfluence, and the official sites of the election commissions in a particular state. (Unsurprisingly, most governors' visitor logs appear not to be posted online, although they may be subject to state FOIA requests. Check out WikiFOIA for tips on using a particular state’s open records laws.) Any other lobbying/campaign data sites that you like? Let us know in the comments.