Tester: Leave no public document off the web

The Lee State Bureau

by Jennifer McKee

HELENA — Sen. Jon Tester this morning sponsored a bill that would put most government documents online in a big, public database.

Tester’s Public Online Information Act would make the federal government put documents that are already considered public on a searchable, free database so anyone with a computer could see them.

"It would be a big step toward a more transparent, accountable government," Tester told reporters Thursday morning in a conference call a few minutes after formally sponsoring his bill.

Currently, many federal documents are considered public. But the public can only see them, Tester said, if they wade through reams of documents or submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which can take months to process.

That’s not really public access, Tester said.

His bill would not affect documents generated before the bill becomes law, should it pass. It would only deal with documents generated afterward. Consequently, Tester told reporters, it shouldn’t cost very much money because no government employees would be scanning older, printed documents. Most government documents are generated electronically, anyway, Tester said, and adding them to a database would not be a major undertaking. Tester said he thought most agencies could probably absorb any costs the program might generate in their existing budgets.

Tester said the bill would only deal with documents already in the public realm, like government reports, budgets and other things, like reports of who lobbies the White House. It would not cover documents already considered secret, like personnel files of government employees or any documents the government might have on private companies that include trade secrets.

Tester said the bill would direct the government to make the database as commonly available as possible, and not create it on a kind of software that everyday computers couldn’t run.

"The public library in Geraldine" may not have cutting edge computers, Tester said.

The bill also gives the government three years to build the database.

Tester told reporters the Obama Administration seems to support the idea.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for more government transparency and which runs its own database of Congressional staff salaries, praised Tester’s idea.

"In today’s world, for information to be truly public, it must be made available online," she said.

Tester said the idea may be unusual for government, but online databases are more and more common in the private sector.

"From a common-sense perspective, this isn’t really groundbreaking," Tester said.