California Ranks Last in Government Transparency

Thursday, April 17, 2014

California continued its descent in the annual tally of government transparency by the U.S Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) by finishing dead last (pdf) this year.

The fifth annual report by the independent watchdog's Education Fund found that states in general “are making progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click transparency and accountability for government state spending.” But that assessment does not include California.

It received an “F” for its effort and a score of 34 out of 100, nine points behind Alaska, the state ahead of it. California earned the dubious distinction primarily for not providing checkbook-level information that can be accessed through a searchable online interface. The checkbooks in Alaska, California and Ohio cannot be searched at all. The state also doesn't provide any information on recipients of economic development subsidies. Idaho and Alaska also earned “F”s.

California slipped three points from its score of 37 last year, which also earned it an “F” but allowed it to edge out North Dakota (31). This year, North Dakota surged to 56 and a “D” score.

No state received a perfect score, but eight received an “A-” for scores above 90. Indiana led the way at 94, followed by Oregon (93.5), Florida (92.5), Texas (91), Massachusetts (90.5), Iowa (90), Vermont (90) and Wisconsin (90).

California transparency took a turn for the worse in November 2011 when Governor Jerry Brown shut down its 2-year-old “Reporting Transparency in Government” site.  The searchable location wasn’t very user-friendly and had big gaps in available information, but was deemed better than what followed, which was nothing.

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 (FPPC), the State Controller’s Office, the Bureau of State Audits or the Department of General Services’ eProcurement website.

California's PIRG said that the state does not lack for models of how to improve its transparency, noting that San Francisco ranked third nationally last year, with a score of 90, out of 30 cities reviewed. San Diego and Los Angeles both received a C- for their scores of 69 and 68, respectively. Riverside got a D- for its 54 and Sacramento was one of five cities that earned an F. Its score of 44 was only underperformed by Cleveland and its 41. 

Los Angeles may move up in the city ratings if they are updated this year after CALPIRG gave a shout out to “Control Panel L.A.,” which provides checkbook-level information in a searchable, downloadable format.

California was one of five states that didn't respond to inquiries for feedback from the researchers, losing out on an opportunity to improve their score with an explanation of possible mitigating circumstances.

The PIRG assessment has been assailed by critics who find its criteria too narrow and an inaccurate gauge of transparency. Michael Liang, a spokesman for California's Department of General Services, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg that the state “deserves more credit for the breadth of contract data'' that it makes available.

California residents have no way to search contracts and expenditures by recipient, keyword or agency. And there is no web-based data on economic development, including public benefits, tax-expenditure reports and recouped funds.

There is also not much transparency concerning quasi-public agencies in California, or any states for that matter.

These independent government corporations, created by state legislation, receive little if any annual public appropriations. They include agencies dealing with waste-management, water treatment and pension management, and can account for significant sums of money changing hands. The Massachusetts PIRG calculated that quasi-agencies had revenues in 2010 equal to about one-third of the state's general budget. 

“Not a single state provides checkbook-level spending information on all of its quasi-public agencies—which demand particular openness because they typically remain outside the normal checks and balances of the budget process,” the report said.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

New Spending Transparency Grades Issued for States (by Mike Maciag, Governing)

California Ranked Lowest in Government Data Access Study (by Elise Young, Bloomberg)

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

Following the Money 2014 (U.S. Public Interest Research Group)

How the 50 States Rank (U.S. Public Interest Research Group) (pdf)

California Cities among Nation’s Best and Worst at Showing Where They Spend Money (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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