N.M. launches prototype of open government website

Christine Beckett | Freedom of Information | Feature | December 21, 2010

New Mexico went live Dec. 16 with a prototype of its planned online open government resource called the Sunshine Portal. The website, which is scheduled to go fully live on July 1, 2011, opens to journalists and citizens information that otherwise might take weeks or months to gain access to through information requests.

The site contains information related to the state's revenue, expenditures, investments, budget and employee salaries. The information contained on the site is provided by 11 state offices including the governor's office, the Department of Finance and Administration, the Department of Tax and Revenue and the State Personnel Office.

The information on the Sunshine Portal is organized into a spreadsheet and the site appears easy to navigate. Because it's a prototype, the site warns that the information currently available isn't necessarily accurate or up-to-date. New Mexico is soliciting comments on the site's functionality and will continue to do so as it is edited during the next seven months.

Sarah Welsh, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said she was "really impressed" with the site when she saw it. "The bill [that mandated the site's creation] was a framework and they really did a good job of making it user-friendly."

The foundation lobbied for the bill when it was before the legislature last summer, believing it should be a top priority for the state. Now that the website is up, Welsh acknowledges there are some information gaps -- most notably, for Welsh, there is no information regarding school district budgets, which command a hefty portion of the state budget -- but, overall, she is pleased with what the site provides. "I wish I had it when I was still reporting," she said.

Journalist Tom Cole of the Albuquerque Journal said he's encouraged by the site's launch. Cole writes a column for the Journal for which he investigates the state government and said he will use the site on a regular basis. There's a lot of useful information on the site, especially in regard to government contracts, he said. "We live in remarkable times when you can sit in your office and give some scrutiny to how the government is doing business."

Cole said that the site is a big step forward for transparency, but only time will tell with how useful it is. There's a lot of information on the site, but there's also a lot that isn't there, he said. Half steps were taken in some areas and Cole said that, in time, he and others will see what is missing and bring that forward.

Requests still need to be made for some state records. For instance, Cole points out that the site does not have information on the salaries for career civil servants. However, he was impressed by the efforts the New Mexico government has made. The site will be helpful for his work and for others throughout the state, he said. "There are a lot of people that care about what the government is doing, not just the media."

However, the site will only serve its purpose if people actually go to the site and access the information, Welsh said. "I'm really hoping that people really use it."