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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Sunshine Daydream
Sander-Rue
Sen. Sander Rue, R-Bernalillo, has led the charge for greater transparency in New Mexico government.

Sunshine Daydream

How much public transparency is enough?

March 9, 2011, 1:00 am
By

Want to know how much Gov. Susana Martinez makes? Three clicks: $109,999.99.


Wondering which company has the most in contracts to extract oil and gas from state trust lands? Four clicks: Midland, Texas-based COG Operating LLC, with more than $25 million over the past two fiscal years.


When it comes to providing quick answers to specific questions, the New Mexico Sunshine Portal excels. But critics say the portal falls short for downloading information, building charts and spreadsheets or even just viewing an original contract.


Most of its creators consider the state’s Sunshine Portal a resounding success in making state government more transparent. But Tom Johnson, who heads the Institute for Analytic Journalism in Santa Fe, says the portal does little to promote meaningful data collection—in effect giving the impression of transparency without actually delivering it.


In 2010, the state Senate passed a bill calling for the creation of a statewide Sunshine Portal to be “free, user-friendly, searchable and accessible to the public.” The law requires the portal to be fully updated and available by July of this year, but a prototype was launched early, in December 2010. 


“We wanted to get something in there so people could look at it and then work with us and the Department of Information Technology on things we need to do to improve it,” the original bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Sander Rue, R-Bernalillo, explains.


DoIT is the agency responsible for creating and maintaining the portal; according to Public Information Officer Estevan Luján, the department has spent a total of $344,000 on two contractors to design, build and implement the Sunshine Portal. The only pending contract, for $76,000, charges the portal’s creator, Real Time Sites, with training DoIT employees to host the site themselves starting in May, Luján explains to SFR in an email.


Steve Schroeder, the president of Real Time Sites (which also created and operates nmroads.com, the site that offers updated information on New Mexico road conditions), says feedback on the site has been positive so far.


“The biggest misconception with the public,” Schroeder says, “is that this portal is supposed to report on everything—like, ‘Why aren’t there court cases in there?’ That might be something we need to communicate better on the home page: what the scope of this project is and where we’re going.”


The current portal offers a wealth of information ranging from state employee salaries to investment account summaries, state purchase orders and revenue sources—but there are still glaring holes.


Half the state budget is education, but none of that is in there yet,” Rue says. SB 327, Rue’s bid to add education data to the sunshine portal, passed the state Senate unanimously on March 7 and, as of press time, was headed for the House.


But Aurora Sánchez, an IT program evaluation manager at the Legislative Finance Committee who has helped Rue navigate state finances to create the portal, says even if Rue’s latest bill doesn’t pass, transparency should be a no-brainer for state agencies.


“I’d like to see the schools, both public and universities, not be forced by legislation, but say, ‘This is the wave; we want to jump on, too!’” Sánchez says. “I don’t think you need a stick to force somebody to do what’s right.”


Still, she says, one of the other common complaints about the site—that viewers can’t see actual scanned versions of state contracts—aren’t as easy to fix. Contracting functions are spread across two state departments, General Services and Finance and Administration, Sánchez says. To simplify the information, she says, Real Time created a system that loads information directly from SHARE, the accounting system used by every state agency except the New Mexico State Fair.


“Ninety percent of the information [on the portal] comes from SHARE,” Sánchez says. 


However, while users can access figures—such as contract amounts—they can’t download the original contracts, or any raw-data spreadsheets.


Transparency advocates such as Johnson say they’d like to see budget documents in their original (and preferably downloadable) form.


But Rue says the existing portal does a good job of presenting data in a way that’s comprehensible to the general public.


“You could take a lot of raw data that wouldn’t mean anything to anybody and just dump it in there, into an Excel format or something,” Rue says. “That doesn’t do anybody any good, to look at 1,000 pages of this raw data numbers.”


Johnson disagrees because currently to use any of the information on the site for further reporting, a user needs to copy and re-enter its data into another format, such as a spreadsheet.


“It’s just very laborious, whereas if you had at least the original spreadsheets or text files to start with, you could be more efficient in doing that same kind of work,” Johnson says.


Though Rue recognizes that download-friendly, Excel-type data would be useful, “that’s not what the portal is,” he says. “This is to take this information and put it in a user-friendly way where laypeople—media, legislators—can get what they’re looking for.” 


According to New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Sarah Welsh, a more serious data problem lies in the state law governing databases—which, unlike regular public records information, can be sold for a profit by the agencies that maintain the data.


“The Sunshine Portal is not what’s standing in the way of people getting access to raw data,” Welsh tells SFR. “What’s standing in the way is the current law, and that’s what we’re trying to repeal. Right now, the state has proprietary rights to its data, and they set up the law in such a way that they can sell it at a profit. We just disagree with that model.”


House Bill 406, currently before that chamber’s Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, would fix that, making databases just as public as other information. But Welsh says the database contracts are lucrative, and that state agencies rely on them for income, which has translated into resistance.


“Eventually, hopefully, we’ll get to a point where the data is open and available, and people are building their own portals and competing to see who can make the data most useful,” Welsh says. “But until we get there, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the state to build something like the Sunshine Portal and make it available now.”


But even within the existing models, Johnson says there are opportunities for improvement—such as allowing visitors to search via one overarching engine on the homepage rather than having to pick and search within a category.


Sánchez points to another, even more obvious potential improvement: updating the data at an appointed time every month. The responsibility to do so rests with DoIT, she says, which has access to SHARE data for every agency, but has yet, with a few exceptions, to upload it to the Sunshine Portal since the new administration took office.


(Luján says DoIT plans to start uploading current data “as soon as possible,” but wasn’t able to state a specific date.)


Still, Sánchez says, even the current site is “actually very good if we compare it to what we had a year ago: nothing.” 


But Johnson says the sunshine portal—at least in its current state—may not be any better than the old, public records request model.


“Is something better than nothing? It’s like having seat belts in your car, but you don’t have them buckled,” he says. “It’s something, but it’s not functional.”


Rue, however, sees the portal as only the beginning.


“The creation of the portal is not a static event or a static process; it’s going to change; it’s going to evolve,” Rue says.


Even so, he adds, “This is the future. The barn doors are open. The public can get engaged, again, in the process of
government.”

Author's Note: The original version of this article listed Gov. Susana Martinez' salary as $142,043.20. That is the midpoint salary for her position; Martinez' salary is actually $109,999.99.

 

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