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Effort at transparency needs work

When it comes to government transparency, we are certifiably fixated. Journalists pretty much have to be because sometimes government is not.

One of the state of Oregon’s efforts to be transparent is the Oregon Transparency website, oregon.gov/transparency. Oregonians owe thanks to former state Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, for getting the state to launch it.

Budgets, salaries, meeting information, state rules, agency goals and much more are collected there in sort of a one-stop shop for information. Some parts of it work well. Some don’t. Overall, it’s more translucent than transparent.

Curious about how much people make in your state government? You can find general information about salary. For instance, some doctors at the Oregon Health Authority are some of the top earners at more than $300,000 per year, at least according to the data provided.

There are also links to how to make public records requests to various state agencies. It would be a lot more convenient for the public if the forms and requirements were more standardized. And don’t get us started on the costs and delays in getting some agencies to cough up public documents.

You can find information about public meetings for many governmental bodies, including state boards and commissions. We use that all the time. Some of them include quick access to the agenda for the meeting, so you can easily find out what’s going on. Others don’t. Why not?

One part of the website that needs serious improvement aims to provide access to agency rules. Agencies that maintain web pages displaying agency rules are required by law to also display links to those web pages on the Oregon Transparency website. Our advice: Don’t go to that website to find rules. We didn’t click on all 226 links for rules. We did click on a bunch. For instance, there were more than 40 links simply labeled “plant” for the Department of Agriculture, which seem targeted at rules for different plants. They all went to the same website with no rules. That is transparently unhelpful.

When we request public records in Oregon, sometimes we get them in minutes. Sometimes it takes a month or more. Sometimes they are free. Sometimes they cost a bundle. But the Oregon Transparency website, at least, is always there and free.

Still, it needs work. Instead of state government telling Oregonians that every effort is made to keep the website accurate and up to date, there’s a disclaimer: “The data and information on this site is raw, unaudited, and may contain errors, omissions, or misstatements.”

So where are Oregonians supposed to go to find the accurate information?

That’s a loophole big enough to drive a semi through. Beyond being transparent about why the data may contain errors, omissions or misstatements, the state needs to fix it and make sure it’s trustworthy.