Think Tank Crowdsources Government Transparency

Friday, June 26, 2015

California Common Sense (CaCS), a non-partisan think-tank, has planted a government-data seed and would like the public to water it.

Late last year, the data-driven policy analysis organization launched the Open Records Initiative, an attempt to accumulate local, state and federal government data in accessible formats at a central location. The site has been seeded with nearly 71,000 documents, which is expected to double by year’s end.

But the exponential growth needed to make this effort meaningful relies on crowd-sourcing. CaCS wants governments, researchers and the public to track down relevant material in all 50 states and post it to the site. For now, the areas of interest are divided into five categories.

Most of the documents, 61,595, are categorized as Government Administration. The rest are scattered among Education, Health, Retirement Systems and Corrections. A lot of the docs are Comprehensive Annual Fiscal Reports (CAFR), annual reports that aren’t that hard to track down on the Internet.

Some of the documents CaCS gathers are readable, but not very accessible. In varying degrees, they can’t be copied, searched or exported to a database for statistical analysis. CaCS unlocks locked PDFs, allowing them to be searchable.

California and the other big states dominate the early going. For instance, the only Education documents are Californian, divided between K-12, California State University (CSU) and the University of California (UC). They look to be all CAFRs. Sunlight Foundation said CaCS is boring down on local and California state government agencies, including jurisdictions with populations larger than 700.    

The aim of a project like Open Records Initiative is to provide more transparency in government. In the age of Big Data, government and big business have done a much better job of compiling and crunching numbers about individuals than the reverse.

Governor Jerry Brown shut down California’s 2-year-old “Reporting Transparency in Government” website in November 2011, and a notice was placed on the webpage directing interested parties to five different government agencies.

That did not go unnoticed by the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), which gave the state an “F” in this year’s annual rating of state government transparency (pdf). The March report noted, “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.” 

Governments have made a lot of noise about transparency in governing and elections, partially as a counter to criticism that big money and powerful interests are creating and implementing policy without the broad participation of their residents. Transparency is supposed to be a check on bad behavior and count as a measure of input and control.

The White House launched Project Open Data in May 2013, a crowd-sourced online repository of government documents housed at the open source platform GitHub. Programmers can contribute tools for accessing and manipulating data, data fixes can be made, policy recommendations can be offered and the public can see the results.

California has a Public Records Act that technically gives every person a right to inspect public records, but in reality that right is very limited. Just finding out what data is available is a challenge. 

State Senate Bill 272, passed the Senate unanimously on May 7 and awaits action in the Assembly, takes a stab at organizing an index of California municipal data by requiring nearly 500 city governments to create catalogs of their datasets and provide those inventories to the public.

They would include information about the data, like the agency responsible, but not the actual data or a link to it. At least, people might have some idea what they’re missing.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

OpenGov Voices: Crowdsourcing State and Local Transparency (by Marc Joffe, Sunlight Foundation)

“Stagnant” California Earns Another “F” in Government Transparency (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Open Records Initiative (California Common Sense)

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