Idaho lags near bottom in online records access

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

By Kevin Richert
Idaho Statesman
March 16, 2009

We’re No. 40. When it comes to online access to public records, we could do better.

For Sunshine Week — an annual celebration of the importance of public records — I was handed an intriguing homework assignment. I was told to look for 20 public documents on Idaho¹s Web site, everything from comparable school test scores to a searchable database of state purchases.

I found eight out 20, which puts Idaho in a tie for 40th. Texas headed the list, scoring 20 out of 20. Mississippi came in dead last, with only four documents out of 20.

Here’s the key sentence from the Sunshine Week assignment: “Our goal is to demonstrate not just whether information is posted, but also how easy — or difficult — it is for the average person to find these records on state government sites.”

I tried to follow that instruction to the letter. Rather than calling contacts at the agencies to ask if the information was online, I wanted to see if I could find it readily through a simple search. If I could, I figured any reasonably Internet-savvy person could do likewise.

Some answers were easy. I knew from experience that the Secretary of State’s Office is great about posting up-to-date campaign finance reports — which are easily found on the office’s election page. I also knew Idaho is one of only three states that doesn’t require legislators to file financial disclosure reports, so there was no point trying to find them on the Net.

What I found — behind our low ranking — was a state that could significantly better, without a lot of extra effort.

* The Idaho Transportation Department does a good job of posting links to its construction projects, but doesn’t link to the contracts. The ITD has a Web page for its bridge division, which conducts biennial inspections. The inspection reports, however, are nowhere to be found.

* The state’s district health departments offer timely inspection reports for day-care centers and restaurants. The catch is, you have to remember to go to the districts, rather than going to the Department of Health and Welfare. If you’re looking for hospital and nursing home inspections, good luck. I couldn’t find them.

* The Board of Medicine has a nice search option that allows patients to review a doctor’s license status. A newsletter lists disciplinary actions but, unfortunately, this hasn’t been updated since last spring.

The state ought to do better. And not just to stay ahead of Mississippi. Easy online access to records helps people make better consumer decisions, and provides taxpayers with a better sense of how their government functions.

Editorial from the Idaho Statesman

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