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3/8/2012
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Ethics.gov Shares Lobbying, Campaign Data

Latest federal data transparency site also delivers information on White House visitors, travel payments, and more.

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The White House has launched yet another effort to increase government accountability and transparency with a new open-data site aimed at providing access to information concerning the government ethics.

Ethics.gov is live now and allows people to search through seven data sets that provide information about government lobbying, travel-payment transactions, and other data revealing the ins and outs of government operations that have previously been unreleased.

"Never before has this measure of government-verified data been available and so easily searchable in a centralized location," White House officials said in a blog post.

The seven types of data made available on the site are: White House visitor records, Office of Government Ethics travel reports, Lobbying Disclosure Act data, Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Act data, Federal Election Commission individual contribution reports, Federal Election Commission candidate reports, and Federal Election Commission committee reports.

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The data includes agency reports of payments from non-federal sources for travel to meetings and conferences; records for organizations registered with the Federal Election Commission such as political action committees, party committees, and presidential campaign committees; and records for political candidates who have registered with the commission or appeared on a ballot list prepared by a state elections office, among other information, according to the post. The new site also includes data on lobbying registrations and reports filed under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

President Obama long promised he would "create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format," and the website is the fulfillment of that promise, officials said.

However, the director of a government watchdog group that has criticized open-government efforts in the past urged caution when giving the feds too much credit for creating the new site.

Because the federal government historically has not hastened to be its own ethics watchdog, the site is a big step, said John Wonderlich, policy director of the independent government watchdog group The Sunlight Foundation. However, it remains to be seen how useful it is or how accountable it makes officials, he said.

"We should be clear about what this new site does and doesn't do--neither money and politics research nor executive branch oversight are going to be revolutionized by this search page--at least not yet," he said, in a blog post on the foundation's website. "But we should also remember that this is a very new role for the White House to be playing. Ethics.gov was a tricky promise to fulfill, which is probably part of the reason it's taken almost four years to implement."

Ethics.gov joins a number of other open-data efforts the administration has enacted since the first day Obama took office and signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government. Data.gov, the unified repository of data sets from across all government agencies, is the effort's crown jewel and linchpin.

Spinoffs of that repository, such as the Federal IT Dashboard, which was just updated this week, also support federal open-data activities.

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