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Few States Get Good Grades on Accessibility of Executive Orders

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signs two executive orders implementing early Medicaid enrollment as his official first act as governor.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signs two executive orders implementing early Medicaid enrollment as his official first act as governor. Gov. Mark Dayton

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Connecting state and local government leaders

A new Sunlight Foundation report assesses how the 50 states make their governor's directives available to the public.

Governors of all 50 states issue executive or administrative orders for a variety of needs, from emergency declarations to directives guiding state agency operations. They are “the legal instruments by which governors conduct their duties,” according to the Sunlight Foundation, which recently found that the way state governments make—or don’t make—those executive orders accessible to the public can vary considerably from state to state.

Sunlight assessed how each of the 50 states publish executive orders, including whether they were available online, uploaded in a timely fashion, published in common formats like HTML or PDFs, whether the published documents were in a searchable format and the overall time period they were available, including executive orders from previous administrations.

Each jurisdiction was assigned a letter grade. Only a few states received overall good marks from Sunlight but the organization did find that 49 of the 50 states do publish executive orders in some online format either on the website of the governor’s office, the Secretary of State or state library. Forty-three states make executive orders from previous administrations available although in most cases, they’re only available at a state library.

According to the Sunlight Foundation:

While most state governors’ offices that we called claimed to post documents in less than a week, we found several states with unpublished executive orders dating back anywhere from a month (Utah) to eight months (Maine). Although many states will issue press releases for particularly urgent or newsworthy executive actions, the publicizing of all actions authorized by executive orders in a timely fashion — from appointments to the implementation of federal law — is important for allowing citizens to hold their lawmakers accountable in more-or-less real time.

Although executive orders are generally covered by public records laws, only three of the governor’s offices (Colorado, Idaho and Kentucky) that we contacted were aware of state statutes that govern how soon their orders need to be published online — if they need to be published online at all. While it’s great that many governors’ offices are thinking about proactively publishing these documents online, codifying online publication into public records law ensures that the choice of making these records accessible is not left to the discretion of the state executive branch.

In 17 states, executive orders are only posted as scans of physical documents, meaning that they can’t be indexed by search engines. “Without the ability to index the actual text of these documents, citizens will need to know exactly where to look before they start looking,” according to the Sunlight report.

Of the 50 states, seven received A grades: Alaska, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas and Washington. Five received F grades: Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi and Nevada.

See what grade your state got in the full report.