Site allows tracking of influential White House visitors, ethics data

The White House’s new Ethics.gov website is up and running, fulfilling a longstanding pledge to increase transparency for political influence-related information such as visitor logs, lobbying disclosures and campaign donations.

For example, a search on March 8 showed that TV celebrity Oprah Winfrey visited the White House three times in 2009, once in 2010 and once in 2011. She gave $2,300 to the Obama campaign in 2008. Another search indicated that actress Glen Close contributed $2,300 to the campaign in 2008.

The administration launched the central Web platform as a central place to publish ethics information, such as White House visitor records, Federal Election Commission political contribution records, Office of Government Ethics travel reports, lobbying disclosures and foreign agent registration.

The website, which is part of Data.gov, allows users to enter a name and instantly see all the reports filed under that name.

“The idea that government is more accountable when it is transparent is a principle that President Obama has worked hard to make a reality in his administration,” reads a statement on Ethics.gov. “That's why the President pledged to create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format.”

While all this information previously has been available elsewhere, it had not been aggregated into a central location.

John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, said that availability of the travel reports, which previously were not easy to obtain, is one of the most exciting features of the new Ethics.gov site.

The other valuable feature is that users can search for a name and simultaneously receive information about the person’s White House visits alongside their campaign contributions. “That is a pretty exciting view,” Wonderlich wrote on the foundation’s blog on March 8.

While the new websites “satisfies the spirit” of the transparency pledges, it may not be broad and comprehensive enough to be the go-to website for campaign-related information—at least not yet, Wonderlich wrote.

“Neither money and politics research nor executive branch oversight are going to be revolutionized by this search page -- at least not yet. We'll see to what degree this new interface becomes the main destination for investigative journalists or ethics officials. That's unlikely to happen right away,” Wonderlich wrote.

One reason for the caution is that several sources already exist offering data on political influence, including the Sunlight Foundation’s own InfluenceExplorer.com website and the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org.

As the White House adds more databases to Ethics.gov, it may be affected by the technical complexities of putting together multiple databases, and making them all searchable so that results can be shown in a single view, is a technically complex task, Wonderlich added.

“Pulling together these various datasets into a unified search isn't as simple as just matching the names; there are all kinds of complex problems involved in combining government datasets into this kind of search interface,” he wrote.





About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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