Over dinner one night with a friend we talked about how to make government more open and transparent. Many are unaware of the federal and state laws that require government agencies to provide documents to citizens upon request. (The federal law is called The Freedom of Information Act - FOIA and the state equivalent is typically Statename Public Records Act.) Increasingly reporting organizations and concerned citizens are using this tool to reveal information about organizations.
Currently any citizen may request any document that a government institution is required to provide. If their request is fulfilled they are sent the document, but they are the only ones with access to this information - it's not in fact "public". (Below I'll tell you why the request is not honored.) I believe the entire process should be made public. Everyone should be able to know who is making a request, what is being requested, and where to view the resulting documents online.
By the end of the dinner, we had mapped out a napkin strategy for a wiki style service where volunteers could post both requests and documents from organizations they were concerned about. Visitors to the site would be able to discover who is making requests and what they're requesting as well as view the documents. In many respects I think data about who is making the request and what they're asking for will be as insightful as any responsive document. If you know that a news organization is inquiring about salaries or pensions - that might be worth more scrutiny. If you could uncover that a large contract was granted and the losing organization is demanding to know why they lost, that could point to some inside dealing.
I decided to partner with John Parres to build NakedGovernment.org, which should launch sometime in the near future. We're hard at work constructing a service that will make public document requests from around the country truly public - all in a manner where they are searchable and viewable. It will be based on a local theme so visitors can focus on institutions that most impact their lives. We hope to launch with documents from every state and to achieve this we're asking for volunteers called "Information Envoys" who will help secure documents from organizations they care about and publish them for the world to see. If you'd like to help please drop us an email at NakedGovernment.org. Don't worry if you don't understand the process - other volunteers will help guide you and it's a great sense of accomplishment the first time you receive previously secret documents.
We've been asking government organizations from across the country for documents and some are helpful, some ignore requests and some make excuses. So many have offered questionable excuses we decided to create a special section on NakedGovernment.org called Lamest Excuses to shine light on organizations who aren't taking their legal obligations serious. Recently I struggled to get a list of employee salaries for my local school district, and after a few weeks I was successful. You can read about my experience here.
The goal with NakedGovernment is to push our country to be more open and transparent by publishing all public document requests. Ideally there would be a standard address to make a request of any organization and a standard place where requests are published to be searchable and viewable. That's the long-term direction we hope to nudge the country towards. If you like the goals of NakedGovernment and would like to get involved or if you know of an organization that needs more transparency, drop me an email.