One of the best ways of measuring this is to examine Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests — the standard way that citizens and news organizations obtain access to government data. Recently, CREW, in its aforementioned survey, questioned federal workers who process FOIA inquiries, asking how much of an impediment such plagues as inadequate staffing and poor records management are to good FOIA policy.

By law, FOIA requests are supposed to be filled within 20 days, but many agencies face significant backlogs. According to CREW, the culprit isn't technology: it's scarce resources and understaffing. "Despite the Obama administration's emphasis on transparency and accountability," the report notes, "[there have] not been the changes to the government infrastructure to accomplish this. The harsh reality is that without more money for staffing and other resources, the processing of FOIA requests will not improve significantly."

Some watchdogs point out that these are precisely the types of problems that could be solved through transparency: making government information more publicly accessible by default, instead of forcing citizens, agencies, interest groups, and journalists to go through a series of time-consuming and sometimes expensive bureaucratic processes.

"One way to combat [backlogs] is to post more records online," says Mark Caramanica, FOI director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "The more transparent you are online, the less you have to react to requests. Furthermore, it's important for people to put things up online in a user-friendly format in a way that it can be digested. Scanning PDF files in a way that they are not searchable doesn't serve open government in the electronic age, and that's something that government needs to consider in looking toward the future."

The administration says it has already started down that path. Since 2009, federal agencies have placed in excess of 270,000 data sets on data.gov, with Kundra tapping a team of "data curators" from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to whittle user-friendly presentations out of several millions of random documents. At a US government–sponsored International Open Government Data Conference in November, curators demonstrated eye-popping info-graphics reflecting the number of library books per capita, clean-air trends, campaign funding, and other data sets that would take months to analyze by hand.

But not many local governments have world-class programmers assisting them. While billions in federal funds are designated to address info-tech issues, towns and cities are finding themselves caught between technological needs and budget constraints. As reported in a bombshell 60 Minutes segment in December, since 2008, the states have together collected about half a trillion dollars less revenue than they've spent. Needless to say, IT budgets come after the likes of payroll, snow removal, and education.

Even basic storage functions like e-mail retention can be paralyzing for small towns, says James Lampke, a Hingham municipal-law attorney who serves as executive director for the City Solicitors and Town Counsel Association: "Communities want to comply, but these things take up a tremendous amount of staff time to deal with. The whole issue reflects a butting of heads of making the best use of modern technology with the practical realities of local government. Some of these things are just not feasible."

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  Topics: News Features , Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, government, Freedom of Information Act,  More more >
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