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March 08, 2012

Ethics.gov - A Step Towards More Transparency in Government

By Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel

data.gov logoToday, in advance of Sunshine Week, the White House unveiled Ethics.gov, a long-awaited on-line repository of ethics data from across the government. In a press release, the White House touted its site as delivering on President Obama’s promise to “create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format. The website is housed within the Data.gov platform which aims to "makes public data universally accessible" online.

Read the White House's Press release.  |  Explore ethics.gov

While we at CREW have had time to take only a quick look at Ethics.gov, we agree. The site provides an especially useful starting point for the general public seeking information on the ethics of government officials. Data from a variety of sources is now only a click away on one central site. We especially welcome the inclusion of lobbying disclosure data that is otherwise hard to locate.

So, as a first step, the White House deserves credit for bringing greater transparency to the conduct of government officials. Ethics.gov could, however, be even more robust with the inclusion of additional data and links to other sources of useful information. For example, the site lacks information concerning waivers of the ethics pledge all executive branch appointees must sign. Currently such data is available only from two separate sites: a White House site for White House officials and the Office of Government Ethic’s website for the rest of the federal government. At a minimum, Ethics.gov should link to those sites.

Moreover, while the campaign finance data currently on Ethics.gov is a good starting place, the site does not include a wealth of other data at the FEC. Specifically missing is data on candidate and committee disbursements, independent expenditures, and electioneering communications – data that has particular relevance post Citizens United. Again, just a link to this information would go a long way.

Further, as the site itself acknowledges, some of the data is hard to access and import into the Ethics.gov interface. This underlines the need for the government to insist on more usable data across the government, and to move away from more archaic and non-searchable formats.

Perhaps the most powerful message Ethics.gov sends is that ethics matter. While Congress is gridlocked on the most basic of disclosure laws, the White House has provided a useful tool to access much of the transparency data already in existence. That is a laudable achievement.

 

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