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Technology Helps Watchdogs Keep an Eye on Government

Technology sheds more light than ever on government, say open-government advocates and public officials.

“It empowers people,” said Gabriela Schneider, communications director for the Sunlight Foundation. The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit’s overarching goal is to achieve online transparency for all government information. Said Schenider: “Access to information online creates government accountability.”

With technology, the public can check a county’s or city’s expenses, look up reports or bills and follow government contracts.  The transparency is encouraged by freedom of information laws that give citizens the right to see many government records.

Here are some links to sites that help the public keep an eye on their government:

This committee is part of the New York Department of State. The committee oversees and advises the government on laws on freedom of information, open meetings, and personal privacy. It also offers advice to New Yorkers on how they can gain access to government information through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Onondaga County’s comptroller oversees the program. “It’s an ironic name for a project in Syracuse seeing that we have a boat load of gray days,” Comptroller Robert Antonacci said. “We like to post online so people can see what we’re spending money on.” Onondaga County spending records are available here. The information is complied monthly and the office has been doing this for two years. Comptroller Antonacci  also tweets from Robert E. Antonacci(@countyspending) . That way, he said, he can communicate with citizens in real-time. “We tweet what we see in our office,” he said.

This is run by the state comptroller. This New York state database makes available information on state government contracts and lists who is doing business with the state. Current summaries of state spending and payment data are posted here too. The website launched in 2008.

OpenSecrets.org  is operated by the Center for Responsive Politics, headquartered in Washington, D.C.  It is a resource for federal campaign contributions and lobbying data. It’s website, called OpenSecrets.org, also has a Get Local! feature. By entering any city or zip code or checking graphically with Open Secret’s “money maps” taxpayers can find out where big political contributions are coming from in their community. To look up federal campaign contributions without the help of OpenSecrets, go directly to the Federal Elections Commission and to the Internal Revenue Service to look up contributions by special groups that are monitored by the federal tax agency.

For state and local candidates’ campaign finance reports,  the source is the New York Board of Elections. 

PACER is an electronic public access program that was developed by the federal judiciary. The court case database gives the public a chance to look at judicial information online.

  • LIVE STREAMS

Several government bodies stream their meetings online in real time so citizens can watch. Among them is the North Syracuse school board, which streams its regular meetings. Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney’s office lists upcoming events that can be streamed live on OnGovLive!. The office also records old addresses and archives them.

The American Society of News Editors is behind Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide initiative to educate the public about the value of government transparency and freedom of information. This year Sunshine Week is March 16 to March 22.

In Cicero, the town’s online e-Policing subscription allows residents to connect with their police department. The Cicero Police list crime-related information like arrests made in the town and other safety tips in scheduled memos. This information is only available to town of Cicero residents.

Deborah Gardner is the chairwoman of Cicero’s open government committee. This committee suggests ways the town board can improve transparency between itself and its citizens. Gardner criticizes the town for its restricted access to e-policing. “Open government should not mean I need to give all sorts of specific information to get information,” she said. “Residents outside of Cicero should be able to sign up for the town’s e-policing program. If you’re elderly and living in Florida – you might want to see what’s going on in your home during the winter.”
(Hannah McDonald is a senior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism with a minor in economics.)

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Posted in Spring 2014 | Comments Off