You are on page 1of 14

The State of Transparency in California: 2013

At the other end of the spectrum. Last year also saw some emerging champions for transparency. Senator Leland Yee was successful in bolstering the state’s transparency laws in key ways and assessing lobbyists to fund new reporting infrastructure. . Voters experienced the first dividends of citizen-drawn legislative districts. we also offer our perspective on vital next steps to fostering a renewed system of governance that enables elected officials and public agencies to forge the best possible solutions and provide the highest quality of services. and state reimbursements to local governments’ public notice were requirements were a victim of budget cuts. But his proposals to broaden online offerings and public access to additional agencies both failed in the Capitol. Intended as a conversation starter on this critical issue in California. the scandal at the California Department of Parks and Recreation brought the entire state financial reporting structure under scrutiny. A fresh round of scandals hit local governments in Los Angeles County. somehow the theme of “public transparency” survived and thrived in 2012. and robust new tools were launched to track compensation of public employees. State Controller John Chiang affirmed that one of his top priorities is to publish data that is otherwise reported to his office and filed away. Yee’s proposals speak to the crux of California’s problem: an outmoded system.IN THIS UPDATE What are the core issues shaping public access and engagement in state and local decision making in California? This update is offered as a high level overview of recent developments and longstanding questions. His effort to reveal the fiscal workings of governments included Public Pay—a website that informs Californians about how much their state and local representatives are being paid. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Despite the massacre of facts that typically occur in presidential election years.

encourages elected officials to publicly discuss options and explain the reasons for their individual and collective decisions. It is an incubator of development hardwired to venture capital funding. Enhanced online resources. was passed before the invention of the Xerox machine. This document should serve as a starting point for that conversation. and publically tracks and reports results. The Ralph M. At its most basic level. the State’s infrastructure for communicating with citizens and among governments is based on outmoded legacy systems.cafwd. and for the purposes of this California must modernize the other. Critical to improving California’s system of governance — that is. . At its most basic level.The cornerstone of the State’s open government structure. public engagement strategies and improved reporting are all aspects of badly needed modernization of the State’s governmental culture. Brown Act. a Transparent Government is one that advertises pending decisions (making key factors broadly available before meetings) provides ways for the public to ask questions and express preferences before and during the decision. and why is it important today? Transparency means many things to many people. maturing best of breed hardware and software development. broadly communicates those decisions. California’s Public Records Act and many of the laws governing public meetings and communication with and among elected officials predate the internet by more than 20 years. To modernize one. This transparency framework requires a layered approach to communication and cooperation with the public at all levels of government. how decisions get made — is a contemporary information infrastructure and matching requirements for that information to be easily available to everyone. This all raises a critical question: what is transparency. On the other end of the spectrum. What is truly important is what Californians believe transparency ought to mean in their state. California leads the world in innovation of information and communication technology. California Forward asserts that Transparent Government is one that makes critical information easily available so that it can inform decisions — by voters as well as their elected representatives. One place the discussion can continue is transparency.

the practice obscures the public’s view into government. The current requirement is that a measure must only be “in print. “Gut and Amends” are not the only process issue that erodes public confidence. Last minute and often major revisions to legislative proposals. Whatever the merits of either proposal. which for most of the legislative session was a bill on air pollution. and in the final week of session was amended to be the California Opportunity and Prosperity Act.CORE ISSUES IN STATE AND LOCAL TRANSPARENCY Well-documented problems with the legislative and budget processes linger. The harried nature with which state budgets – and indeed many laws – are passed in the Legislature is more or less a punch line in Sacramento. A provision of last year’s failed Proposition 31 (advocated by California Forward) would have required all legislative proposals be publicly available for 72 hours before an official vote. common and controversial practice in the Capitol. But it is a pox on our democracy. but they are emblematic of the culture that erodes public trust. known as “Gut and Amends” are a longstanding. One prominent example from 2012 was SB 901. .” and even that rule is routinely suspended. an immigration proposal. “three days in print” in Capitol vernacular.

. While there is much to praise in state and local transparency efforts. there is still an enormous deficit in the quality of available fiscal data: data on revenue. school districts and a basket of special purpose districts. the State Controller’s Annual Reports. Californians should care about this since property tax is still the single largest tax financing local services. At a high level. are based on self-reported and unaudited data from the very entities being monitored. property tax distribution and other state functions limit true comprehension of the State’s finances to a handful of Capitol insiders and watchdogs. Whether limited by outmoded reporting systems or intentionally withheld or obscured. The rash of local government scandals. the only centralized source for information on local government spending and revenues. Californians are only now coming to understand what public workers earn on an annual basis. More foundational. along with the state parks controversy.CORE ISSUES IN STATE AND LOCAL TRANSPARENCY A lack of valid data is preventing policymakers and the public alike from making informed choices. Depending on the number of local governments that provide services. interpret and evaluate. as in the State Parks Department or the City of Bell. data on campaign contributions that can influence decision-making. it is difficult if not impossible to find out which of the many local governments that provide services get the money. Facing these shortcomings is but the first step in bringing Californians closer to their government and our elected leaders closer to meaningful debate on core issues. Little if any actionable data is available on pension and debt obligations. complex funding mechanisms for K-12 education. the city. is strong evidence that enhanced reporting and oversight is needed — and that oversight in part can be done by the public if the right information is available to everyone. including the county. Perhaps the worst example of lack of information is related to property tax. State-level information on pensions and even basic expenditures is scarce and often outdated once available. expenditures and outcomes by agencies so the public knows if they are getting their money’s worth. a homeowner’s tax payment may be split among a dozen or more entities. From the property taxpayer’s perspective. and. financial data on state and local government can be difficult to obtain.

the campaign finance tools that are the norm at the state and federal level are almost entirely absent from the municipal and school district venues. With the internationally renowned ecosystem of web developers and technology entrepreneurs in California. but it is the most expedient vehicle for engaging the public and encouraging honest evaluation of its performance. but adoption rates are slow. the lag on implementing modern tools and providing good quality data is perhaps the state’s biggest missed opportunity. It has been plagued by outages and is in dire need of modernization. and eliminated others. some of which dates to original launch in 1999. The State shut down its central transparency website in 2011 (asserting the information was available elsewhere). . Only a fraction of California cities make local campaign finance information available online. The State’s lobbying and campaign finance disclosure website (Cal-Access) relies on 13 different programming languages. and cities such as San Francisco have implemented tools at the vanguard of open data resources. this trend is in decline and many cost-effective. California’s public sector is lagging in the adoption of tools that were invented by the private sector right in its backyard. are severely lacking. Some notable efforts aside. The state has nonetheless let certain tools languish. Home to Silicon Valley and several of the world’s most forward-looking corporations. This system is fortunately set to receive new funding. Technology is not a cure for the accountability issues in California. local government on the whole does not adequately or uniformly communicate key budget information. The State of California’s online resources have been positively reviewed in reports issued by the Sunshine Review and Center for Public Integrity. such as criminal justice realignment. And while cities of varying size have implemented a range of transparency tools online. However.CORE ISSUES IN STATE AND LOCAL TRANSPARENCY Innovations abound. Looking beyond the State’s reporting. California has a commendable history of incorporating technology and other best practices into its public engagement strategies. online resources and critical data on major initiatives. From top to bottom. smart solutions are being overlooked or ignored.

many community members may not possess the tools to understand finished budget documents. The distinction of the two documents is one of context and audience. regulators and lawmakers. and profiles of company leadership and the corporation’s strength in the marketplace. Private sector entities understand they must be accountable not only to their bond and listed. on balance local government has significant ground to cover in these regards. including annual filing of the Form 10-K.” a central document that lays out the jurisdiction’s policies on balanced budgeting. and because of the unique nature of public services. however. or discern the critical steps in the decision making process. The authors caution that “Whether and how new information is used to further public objectives depends upon its incorporation into complex chains of comprehension. As such. and to whom? Accountability: Does the budget document meet the criteria established by the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA). Under federal securities laws. http://ir. and response.” Harvard Kennedy School faculty Archon Fung.Key Consideration: Performance Data is Useless without Proper Context. Just one example. easy-to-comprehend graphs.zhtml?c=94566&p=irol-financials . single-spaced. as each city and school district is unique. The company also. operating reserves. Mary Graham and David Weil explore the burgeoning transparency movement in the public and private sectors and how increased availability of data and rising public demand for accountability are reshaping public discourse. issues a shareholder-focused Annual Review that is just 38 pages long and is rich with photos. on the firm’s Investor Reports page. but also to shareholders and customers who are predominantly laymen. logical way? Accessibility: Is there an explanation of the local agency’s decision-making process and how to participate in it? Is there a clear timeline laid out to city residents regarding the budget process? Is there a clear “Budget Policy Statement. action. 1 1 Owing to layered legal and financial regulations. Analogous to this would be the annual reports of major corporations. it is insufficient for a government agency to merely post byzantine budgetary documents or inscrutable data files that fail to inform even the most engaged of constituents. when considering a city. providing a comprehensive overview of the company's business and financial condition. side by side. As such. which provides a set of best practices on budgeting to guide solid financial management? While there are jurisdictions that excel in one or more of these categories in nearly every corner of the state. The key questions to ask.thecoca-colacompany. the 2011 10-K report for the Coca-Cola Company is 238 pages long.” To this point. public budgets tend to be more complex than those of small or large businesses. then. What data is most important to share? In the 2007 book “Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of publicly traded companies must disclose information on an ongoing basis to the Securities and Exchange Commission. both of these documents are easily found on the corporation website at thecoca-colacompany. so too are its budget practices. Certainly. debt and other key issues? What opportunities are there for public input on budget priorities? How are these opportunities promoted. Among the core issues are the pitfalls of disclosure without definition. county or school district budget: Availability: Is the jurisdiction’s Budget document online? Is it easy to find and organized in a straightforward.

as well as identifies and highlights best practices in these efforts across California. Ultimately. educational achievement. beyond the passive acts of merely publishing meeting and budgetary documents. State and local government agencies. municipalities. . the project is designed to promote best practices and raise the bar for transparency in government budgeting and decision making. must strive to provide context to these documents and figures they contain. public safety and other core issues. California Forward is striving to fill the contextual void left by an abundance of raw data and a dearth of perspective on core issues including local finance. While supporting a movement to redefine transparency toward a more active enterprise. offers engaging and contextual portrayals of these data points. With a focus on California The Transparency Portal integrates public data on budgeting and key governmental outcomes. California Forward launched a Transparency Portal in 2012 to identify and promote best practices in the communication of government activity in California to support transparency and accountability and encourage continuous improvement in governance models.THE CALIFORNIA FORWARD TRANSPARENCY PORTAL California Forward believes that “Transparency” in California must mean more than access to public documents. and the highly trained professionals that manage them. school and special districts. counties. transparency.cafwd.

State transparency laws should be updated to reflect the contemporary world and enable greater citizen engagement. While California may still lead by example. this information should be available in formats that allow the public and policymakers to understand the real deal. at minimum making the scanned pdfs accessible should be the norm in cities with adequate resources. from runaway pension obligations to billion-dollar infrastructure investments. the need – and demand – for expanded transparency has never been higher. One of the root causes of California’s underperformance is a highly complex system that makes it hard for public officials to deliver and even harder for voters to know whether they did or not. Ending the practice is a good first step in the long road to a process that often excludes even insiders and public interest advocates – let alone the general public. Allowing a bill to travel through committee approval in one form. Whether it is city budgets or the arrest rates of re-offenders. in classrooms and courtrooms. The public – and the officials in charge – must know where the money is going and what is being accomplished.Given the high stakes decisions before officials. in 2012 the commitment to inform the public did not match the imperative. At the local level. Putting an end to the “Gut and Amend” process would be a substantial step forward for the California Legislature. only to see radical changes made in the 11th hour is unacceptable and common sense reforms are needed. EXPANDING DISCLOSURE OF CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTORS ENDING CLOSED DECISION-MAKING PROCEDURES . PLANNING AND OUTCOMES. Here are a few areas where California Forward is engaging: WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS? EXPANDING ACCESS TO RELIABLE DATA ON PUBLIC SPENDING. Now the standard for state and federal government. Multiple legislative proposals are already making their way through Sacramento this year as a result of the outcry over the $11 million in “dark money” funneled from Arizona into two California ballot measure elections in November 2012. in public works and prisons. and improve efficiency at the state and local level. less than 10 percent of California cities make campaign finance and candidate filings available online.

at minimum making the scanned pdfs accessible should be the norm in cities with adequate resources. Have more great examples? Want to Share yout thoughts on Transparency in California? transparency. contributions and expenditures. The City of Santa Maria is another strong example of a straightforward portal for this information. incumbents and political committees regarding expenditures and contributions. While certainly not a comprehensive list.cafwd. these are just a few stories California Forward has been following the past year. The City of West Hollywood has a robust system displaying Campaign Finance Statements for all candidates. The City of Irvine for example has created a campaign finance page that includes a PDF list of open campaign committees. Cost is regularly cities as a barrier to this kind of Get engaged at: . Public engagement strategies across the state are as diverse as its communities. Now the standard for state and federal government.City Hall Success Stories Local Campaign Finance Let’s Keep Talking The following pages outline individual success stories in transparency from local government. Many of the state’s large cities as well as medium size cities such as Berkeley and Huntington Beach utilize third party tools to allow for both candidate filing as well as a public access portal for information on candidates. including a filing calendar. but examples exist of low impact means for communicating basic information. in both the public and private sector. a listing of the city’s campaign contribution limits over the course of the last several years as well as a list of resources for candidates. Less than 10 percent of California cities make campaign finance and candidate filings available online. campaign finance forms and the FPPC’s campaign disclosure manual.

At least 10 cities in Orange County provide some level of translation. The project combines an online resource with “Open Up Long Beach” community meetings. . and it appears the community was eager for such an opening to get involved and restore faith. Vallejo Trailblazes on Participatory Budgeting Vallejo implemented one of the most aggressive participatory budgeting programs in the country in the wake of its bankruptcy. Vallejo is the first city in America to have its council adopt participatory budgeting city-wide with funds from a general sales tax measure rather than in just one district using discretionary funds. Her initiative “Open Up Long Beach” provides residents with increased access to the city’s every day affairs and includes opportunities to learn about what individual council members are working on. and the demand for bilingual meetings and materials is growing across the state. what committees they sit on and what projects they spearhead. Anaheim Incorporates Spanish Translation at Council Meetings Anaheim announced in January 2013 that it would provide Spanish translators at its council meetings.City Hall Success Stories Public Engagement Long Beach Launches “Open Up Long Beach” In January of 2012 Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske of the City of Long Beach took public education and transparency efforts one step further. Setting a new first gave Vallejo the opportunity to move on from a period of financial turmoil.

Run by Peak Democracy. the tool offers new ways to engage with the city on key decisions. programmers will appreciate the site’s Application Programming Interface (API). from Beverly Hills to Livermore. . the Oakland City Council passed an open data policy initiative put forth by city councilmember Libby Schaff.” an online forum for civic engagement.City Hall Success Stories . The City also provides information on recycling. Launched in February. RC2GO allows residents to report graffiti. which enables direct access to tap into City data to build software applications. launched in February 2013 and allowing users to access. Online Tools and Data Sharing San Francisco Launches App for Police Department Last summer. potholes or other issues to the city. The application allows police officers to report remotely from the electric vehicle charging and other items via the App. saving time and speeding communication. This has led to the creation of data. the City of San Francisco announced the launch of a new mobile application to a list of already implemented technologies that have changed the way many of the city’s departments conduct business. visualize and download City data. Rancho Cucamonga Launches RC2GO In 2012 Rancho Cucamonga joined the ranks of cities that have launched smartphone apps. Oakland Advances Open Data In April. In addition. Walnut Creek Launches Open Town Hall Walnut Creek launched “Open Town Hall.

etc. quality of life. Delphi is developing “user-friendly. and . efficiency.Spotlight on Innovation The following firms are just some of those operating in California and leading in public engagement and government Delphi Founded by Stanford technologists and backed by prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors. an opportunity for government to use technology to save time and money plus improve accountability to those they govern. promotes transparency. CitySourced provides a simple and intuitive platform empowering residents to identify civic issues (public safety. and improves policy decisions by offering unprecedented municipal benchmarking of performance outcomes. environmental issues. See: citysourced. robust analytics.) and report them to city hall for quick resolution. CitySourced Los Angeles based CitySourced is a real time mobile civic engagement platform. and intuitive user experiences. intelligent software to improve government transparency.” Delphi’s platform streamlines the management of municipal financial data. visualizations to communicate complex data. They are listed alphabetically and are not offered as a comprehensive list or endorsement of any product or service. See: delphi.

California. Inc. develops internet software that augments and diversifies online civic engagement in ways that can increase public trust in government. It emulates the order and decorum of public hearings — making the forums insightful and civil yet compliant with free speech and other legal requirements. NetFile’s Campaign system clients include several cities (including 3 of the largest in the state) and counties (including 5 of the 7 largest in the state). Open Town Hall / Comments is an online forum for dialogue on specific issues. In 2003. was the first company to e-file a campaign finance disclosure statement in California. It's modeled after the best practices of brainstorming workshops professionally facilitated to optimize for collaboration (not arguments). and broad public interest (not narrow special interest). Califonira-based NetFile. Open Town Hall / Ideas 3. digitized document technology and electronic workflows. Today. NetFile accounts for more than half of all electronic filings of political disclosure documents and lobbyist statements in the State of California. The company’s stated focus is to “equip government offices with costeffective and scalable solutions that utilize robust databases. See it in action: netfile.NetFile Mariposa. consensus (not polarization).com .com Southtech SouthTech Systems is an eGoverment and eBusiness software development company with offices in Riverside. The company has two flagship products. NetFile launched a new product built using its expertise in electronic filing that enables local city and county governments to cost effectively set up their own Campaign E-filing and Administration systems. established in 1998.” See: Peak Democracy Berkeley-based Peak Democracy.0 is an online forum for ideation on general topics. See: peakdemocracy.