White House Launches Ethics Website

on March 08, 2012 at 12:06 PM

The White House launched a new website today devoted to government ethics practices, fulfilling the President’s campaign promise to create a single website for searches related to executive branch ethics and influence data.

The new website is part of the administration’s Data.gov website, and can be found at Explore.data.gov/ethics. The site provides the public the ability to enter a name and search government data, to see available records on individuals in government-“including campaign finance, lobbying, and White House visitor records,” according to the site.

The site displays relevant results from a variety of different sources, and also allows bulk downloads of the related data. The information is pulled from records from seven different datasets:

  • White House Visitor Records
  • Office of Government Ethics Travel Reports
  • Lobbying Disclosure Act Data
  • Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) Data
  • Federal Election Commission Individual Contribution Reports
  • Federal Election Commission Candidate Reports
  • Federal Election Commission Committee Reports

“We should be clear about what this new site does and doesn’t do,” said John Wonderlich, Policy Director for the Sunlight Foundation and one of the nation’s foremost advocates for open government, in a blog published today in reaction to the new site. “Neither money and politics research nor executive branch oversight are going to be revolutionized by this search page — at least not yet.

But we should also remember that this is a very new role for the White House to be playing,” he said.

“Ethics.gov was a tricky promise to fulfill, which is probably part of the reason it’s taken almost four years to implement. It’s tricky because presidents haven’t played this role before — of trying to bring together various sources of ethics data into a single search, to empower public oversight. That’s the reason that we’re excited about Ethics.gov.”

Wonderlich said two of the most promising types of data that are available through the new interface are Office of Government Ethics travel reports, “which weren’t easy to get before,” he said, and “the ability to search for a name and see their White House visits alongside their campaign contributions.”

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

As with other areas in the data.gov community, ethics.data.gov is “designed to grow and change over time,” visitors to the website are told, which, as was the case for Data.gov, means the amount of initial data is expected to rather sparse but is likely to gain momentum as users familiar with government records continue to identify datasets.