“Stagnant” California Earns Another “F” in Government Transparency

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Governor Jerry Brown shut down California’s 2-year-old “Reporting Transparency in Government” website in November 2011. The searchable location wasn’t very user friendly and had big gaps in available information, but it was deemed better than what critics feared would follow.

The next year, the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) gave the state a D- (pdf) in its annual rating of state government transparency; only six states did worse. The independent watchdog said, “Without a central location for the data, the state simply lacks the digital infrastructure to build upon.”

That complaint is the main reason California finished dead last by a wide margin and was one of three states to receive an “F” in CALPIRG’s 2015 report (pdf).

Brown said in 2011 that curious citizens could hunt down whatever information they sought at primary sources or via California’s Open Records Act. They were also free to poke around in databases at the Fair Political Practices Commission, the State Controller’s Office, the Bureau of State Audits or the Department of General Services’ eProcurement website.

That doesn’t set well with CALPIRG. California “is weighed down primarily by bureaucratic fragmentation of its information,” the report said. “California does not succeed in creating a ‘one-stop’ transparency portal. . . . It would be relatively easy for California to substantially improve its score by providing clear links to sources of data from a central website.”

California garnered a total of 34 points out of 100 by wracking up 24 points in one category, 10 points in two others and zero points in the remaining eight. Alaska was the next worse at 43, followed by Idaho at 45. Ohio was the only “A+”, with a perfect score, and was joined by 13 other “A” and “A-” states.

Like every other state, California got a perfect score in the “checkbook level” of information of “Contracts and Expenditures,” which means “users can view the payments made to individual companies as well as details about the goods or services purchased or other public benefits obtained.” The state got 6 points for allowing bulk downloads 4 for reporting on quasi-public agencies.

Only one state, Ohio, received a 100 by getting perfect scores those things and stuff like providing users with the ability to search by recipient, keyword and agency, including tax expenditure reports and telling users what information has not been included.

Ohio also picked up 3 out of 4 bonus points for reporting on money clawed back “from companies that fail to deliver on the agreed-upon public benefits.” But the bonus only counts if a state is under 100. California didn’t get any extra credit.

California’s crummy rating—an “F” two years in a row—isn’t necessarily an indication that the state is getting worse. The “A” group increased from eight states to 14 this year.

“These states have created user-friendly websites that provide visitors with accessible information on an array of expenditures. Not only can ordinary citizens find information on specific vendor payments through easy-to-use search features, but experts and watchdog groups can also download the entire checkbook dataset to conduct offline analyses.”

“This year, most states have made their budgets more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars,” CALPIRG Executive Director Emily Rusch said. “California, however, has remained stagnant, with a long way to go.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Receives "F" in Annual Report on Transparency of Government Spending (California Public Interest Research Group)

California Critiques State's Open Data Health Portal (by Jason Shueh, Government Technology)

California Ranks Last in Government Transparency (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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