Monday, March 16, 2009 | 2:06 a.m.
Searching the Internet for government documents can be maddening. The records that are posted online are often difficult to find, in a format that is not easy to use or incomplete. It may also cost money to see those documents.
This is Sunshine Week, an annual event for a coalition of open-government advocates who review the state of public access in the country. Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said access to information online “can be a great catalyst for democracy, but the state of access today is quite uneven. The future of freedom of information is online access, and states have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of electronic self-governance.”
In a national survey of state records available online, the Sunshine Week coalition surveyed whether the public could find and download 20 categories of government documents, including death certificates, hospital inspection reports and school test data. The Las Vegas Sun helped compile results for Nevada.
Only Texas offered free records in all the categories. Nevada offered access in 14 of the 20 categories. That sounds good at first glance, but many of the records the state offers are either not complete or difficult to use. For example, campaign finance reports are available online, but to search for the name of a donor, a user must go page by page as if looking at a paper document. School bus inspection reports contain only the aggregate number of buses inspected and passed — not the types of problems or the action taken to correct them. Doctor disciplinary records show the actions taken against them and only cursory information about the complaint.
Although many government records are stored electronically and could be easily posted online, some officials feel that the records are the government’s documents and refuse to make them available. Officials at all levels of government should understand that the taxpayers own these documents and they should be open, free and on the Internet for all to see.