SEATTLE – Setting an appointment for a dental checkup or adjustment with a chiropractor? In just a few seconds online, you can check to see if that dentist or chiropractor has ever been disciplined by the Washington Department of Health.
Since 2003, the discipline records for all kinds of doctors, nurses and other medical providers have been available online in Washington state. And teacher discipline records have been available for nearly as long.
But Washington government Web sites still do not let consumers search for businesses against which complaints have been filed. Drivers cannot find which gas stations have been caught overcharging. And school bus and school building safety records are not available online.
“In the state of Microsoft, there’s no technological barrier for the state to put its information online,” said Seattle open-government lawyer Michele Earl-Hubbard of Allied Law Group. “It might be a lack of willingness. It might just be a lack of incentive. You’d have to ask the governor; you’d have to ask the attorney general.”
In a partnership with the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information committee, Associated Press bureaus around the country surveyed state and local government to see how much government information is now available online.
Washington state ranked near the top of the states for public access to government records online, but the state still has a way to go.
Technology is actually one of the main reasons government officials give to explain why some state information has yet to make it online. But the main reason is privacy and the cost of cleansing those records to remove legally protected private information, said Kristin Alexander, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Rob McKenna.
The cost of converting information into a searchable database has kept the school and bus inspection information off the Superintendent of Public Instruction Web site, said agency spokesman Chris Barron.
Converting the database of business complaints to an online database would require technology the attorney general’s office does not yet have, Alexander said. That information is readily available to consumers in writing – after private information about the complainant has been removed.
Hospital, nursing home and child care center inspection records are available online. Consumers can check online to see if a Washington doctor or attorney has been disciplined. And bridge inspection and safety records are posted.
Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Department of Health, expressed pride in the way Washington keeps its citizens informed.
“We’re very pleased to have this access to information,” said Moyer, referring to the discipline database that has been searchable online since April 2003. He said his department also goes beyond the minimum legal requirement to inform the public when a doctor’s license is revoked for a reason that could hurt someone, such as sexual abuse.
Open-government advocates would also like to see more government agencies follow the attorney general’s guidance and supply records electronically to people who ask for them through the public records law.
Things are improving in some areas of public record retrieval. Last year, the state Legislature required a new online database for audit reports and government expenditures, which is exhaustive and almost tedious in its level of detail.