Just about the only thing transparent in California state government is its lack of transparency, a point just made by at least a couple of good-government groups during Sunshine Week.
A report card published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation gives the state Legislature a “D” overall for how it makes its data available to the public. The rankings were based on six categories: completeness, timeliness, ease of access, machine readability, standards and performance.
Lots of the state’s data was in machine readable formats, like XML, JSON, CSV, or available for bulk downloads, but substantial amounts of it were only obtainable through standard methods of “screen scraping HTML.” Bills were provided to the public in PDF and HTML form, but not via alternative standards, like ODT and plaintext. Most of the Legislature’s data was kept in a permanent location, except for legislator and committee information.
That was bad enough to get them an overall “D,” along with five other states rated by the foundation. Eight states received the top grade, 11 got a “B,” 20 netted a “C,” and six flunked. Texas, Kansas and Washington were the best of the best, and Massachusetts was the worst of the worst.
Among its complaints: Critical property tax information was scattered among a dozen or so entities; budget information is released in a form that only experts can understand; lawmakers take up legislation without even a 72-hour gestation period for public review; and bills are amended at the last moment in a process known as “gut and amend” that keeps even lawmakers purposefully in the dark.
Gut and amend takes a bill on one subject, strips out its content and substitutes language of an entirely different bill. It is a favorite stunt used in the frantic last moments of a legislative session.
Both reports share a common view that available technology could greatly enhance transparency if the powers that be wanted to use it.
“Technology is not a cure for the accountability issues in California, but it is the most expedient vehicle for engaging the public and encouraging honest evaluation of its performance,” according to California Forward.