04/06/2015 by Jodi Remke

Jodi Remke: Technology and Transparency go hand in hand


California’s Fair Political Practices Commission chairwoman Jodi Remke speaking at California Forward's 2015 Summit on Data. (Photo Credit: Caitlin Maple/CA Fwd)

Jodi Remke is chairwoman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission. At the recent California Forward Summit on Data in Sacramento, she made a case for California moving to modernize and use technology to enhance the work of her watchdog agency and others. We asked to reprint her comments given the importance of she said and how it helps define a roadmap toward greater transparency in our government:

Since starting at the Commission, I have set three main goals: (1) to continue strict enforcement of the most serious violations of the Political Reform Act; (2) to streamline and simplify the requirements under the Act to improve compliance and disclosure; and (3) to increase transparency by using technology. It’s this third goal that I’m going to focus on today.

It’s no secret that the state needs to modernize. Opportunities for increased efficiency and greater transparency are everywhere. And it’s up to those of us in government to advocate for projects and ensure their success. For too long the state’s technology has limited us from delivering the best service we can and the best government the public deserves.

Government stands to achieve incredible efficiencies by embracing technology, but equally as important as the time and money we could save is the knowledge we stand to gain by being able to scrutinize and analyze our data. And to maximize our capabilities, it’s time we move away from the form-driven mindset that has controlled state government for so long and move towards the data-driven model of the future.

As we all know, the state has extremely valuable information but the trick is extracting and presenting it in a way that is meaningful and accessible.

A perfect example is campaign finance. California has strict campaign rules requiring candidates and elected officials to disclose almost every single donor of every single dollar given to their campaigns. It’s great; it’s one of the most comprehensive systems in the country. But all of this valuable disclosure is buried in a clunky state database that the average person doesn’t have any chance of finding or deciphering. We must have a new state database.

When discussing political reform, a new database needs to be at the top of the list. It will increase transparency, improve accountability, and enhance enforcement efforts. Perhaps most importantly, it will allow us to begin substantive policy discussions on campaign finance reform – discussions that are restricted now by the limited capabilities of the existing system.

But that’s down the road. In the meantime, we need to continue to find alternatives to increase transparency. At the FPPC we are focused on using technology to achieve the kind of smart disclosure that is truly meaningful to the public. Last year, we launched our Top 10 Contributor Lists, showing top donors to committees primarily formed to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures.

When data is laid out in a user-friendly format, it’s easy to see who is supporting and opposing the races. This information provides important cues to the voters when it matters most – before the election.

This data also helps voters better understand the role money is playing in politics today. For example, looking at the data from the Top 10 Lists to ballot measures, we see that of the approximate $206 million spent to support or oppose six ballot measures during the last election; $158 million was given by the top donors. This means that 77 percent of money contributed to influence ballot measures was given by 78 donors. Government is in a unique position to offer this type of non-partisan and non-biased data to inform, engage and establish trust with the public.

Another example of how the FPPC is using technology to demystify the political process is our newly developed Candidate Toolkit. This online toolkit condenses several instructional manuals into a one-stop-shop for would-be candidates. The toolkit has been well received, especially by local elections officials who praise its simplicity. When campaign laws are drafted, we often forget the broad spectrum of races impacted. To encourage participation at all levels, we need to find ways to assist the candidate running for the district hospital board who is without the resources to hire professional consultants. Our plan is to continue to expand and improve our online educational resources with user-friendly, interactive tools.

Although we’ve had success with the Top 10 Lists and the Candidate Toolkit, the rest of the procedures at the FPPC have not received the 21st century upgrade they desperately need.  Almost all of what we do is completely manual.

You may be familiar with Form 700s, these are the forms public officials must file to disclose their personal financial interests. This form is crucial to having a transparent government and assuring that officials are acting in the public’s best interest not their own financial interest when making government decisions.

Right now the forms are housed mainly as paper forms in filing cabinets at the FPPC, local city clerk’s offices, and various other local and state agencies. While the FPPC receives 25,000 forms, there is an estimate 500,000-800,000 spread throughout the state. The current process is bad for the FPPC, bad for public officials, and bad for the public.

Obviously technology offers solutions. We are moving as quickly as possible on electronic filing for these Form 700s. It will make life easier for everyone involved. On our side, it will free up countless staff hours that are currently spent opening mail, date stamping, reviewing and filing 25,000 forms. For filers, it means no more printing, scanning, and emailing cumbersome PDFs, and hopefully reducing errors. And for members of the public, the press and for good government groups like CA Fwd, it will mean instant access to important information.

Clearly, it’s time for government to start embracing common sense solutions to our problems by using technology. Throughout its 40-year history the Commission has stood out as a national leader in regulating governmental ethics - I look forward to being the national leaders in increasing transparency through technology. Thank you for allowing me to share my experience.

Jodi Remke is the chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Categories: Democracy, Elections, Tech-enhanced Government, Open data, Accountability, Transparency

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