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Hunting for information on government websites

Since Africa Check was launched, I have spent more time than I imagined I might on government websites. And (whisper it please) have been pleasantly surprised by how much information many government departments have there, ranging from speedily available ministers' speeches  to details of the education department’s annual national assessment strategy.

That this information is available is a good thing. But here's the thing. The way it is presented means it is often not much use, either to a journalist such as me or to the average citizen.

Presenting the 2013 budget in parliament this week, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan reported the concerns of a South African citizen,Willie du Preez, who, the minister said, had suggested that: “as a citizen one should be able to obtain from the Treasury website at the end of each financial year what amount was spent on what infrastructure.”

Not to worry, Mr Gordhan went on. “You can already obtain that information from the Treasury website, not just every year, but every month!”

Information - but not as we know it

Well, I don't like to contradict, but from our experience I would say that no, in fact, you can't. Or not in any way that is meaningful and useful.

The information may be there somewhere, but it is certainly not presented in the way suggested and is not easy to find.

Ray Joseph has already blogged about technical aspects of the way StatsSA presented the data from the 2011 Census. I will look at the way the Treasury website writes this sort of information up.

After listening in on the 2013 budget, Africa Check took the minister at his word. We went to the Treasury website's section on the Infrastructure Development Improvement Programme and opted for Monitoring and Reporting. It refers to a reporting model that has provinces reporting to national treasury and indicates this is quarterly and only sometimes on a monthly basis.

It would be more accurate to say the information is available quarterly. But even then it is misleading is to suggest the way the information is presented addresses the citizen’s concern. It is difficult to find the information in the first place. And when you do this is what you see.

The problem here is that government departments tend to post their documents in “government speak” in a government-required format that does not necessarily correspondent to what you need. The information is not summarised to make it intelligible to the average citizen. And it certainly is seldom in plain English which is required by several acts of government.

So, assuming the average citizen has access to the website, although the information may there - people need a level of expertise to understand it, and this is without going into the issue of the technical format in which data is presented.

So indeed, while it is good that some information is available, I'm afraid, Mr. Minister, that we  do still have some way to go yet before it is truly accessible, and useful, to all.

Ruth Becker is editor of and can be contacted at [email protected]

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