Breaking down California’s transparency report card

150 150 Chris Nelson

It’s Sunshine Week this week. Those in SoCal may be asking “and that’s different from every other week…how?” But the metaphor here is about open government and shining light where citizens have the right to know what their elected officials are doing.

It’s the ideal week for organizations who track and rate government transparency to release their findings. Two such organizations gave California two very different letter grades this week: an “A-” and a “D.”

One might ask how it’s possible to get such radically different results, and the easy answer is that there’s a wide-range of criteria available to use when assessing transparency. Sunshine Review gave California an “A-” and the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) awarded the “D.”

I was able to engage both organizations on Twitter and the short answer I was given is that one graded on accessiblity (CALPIRG) while the other (Sunshine Review) graded on availability.

This is an important sticking point. One could easily give The Home Depot an “A” rating for the availability of any construction material under the sun, but a “D” for the ease of finding a certain type of screwdriver. An expert may be able to quickly hunt down what he/she is looking for, but the average person would have a harder time.

That Gov. Jerry Brown shut down the centralized and searchable website for state-related spending information is CALPIRG’s main beef, according to the full report they released:

“Unfortunately, in November 2011, Governor Jerry Brown shut down the site, effectively uprooting California’s transparency efforts. The practical effect of taking down the site is that California’s spending picture is more obscured. The reason offered by Brown’s administration for removing the site was that they wanted users to go to the primary sources of the information…While state spending information may technically still be available online or by request under California’s Open Records Act, it is not truly accessible because the data are once again scattered across multiple agency websites, each with different formats and locations for the information, or require an official records request.”

Meanwhile, the Sunshine Review breaks down their high rating, listing the only blackmarks as  a lack of “information is available on Taxpayer-funded lobbying,” and the fact that “department-specific information is available on making public records requests, but hard to find.”

They acknowledge CALPIRG’s report and the difference in methodology mentioned above. One would think that CALPIRG’s method is the more comprehensive and thus the clearer picture of how interested our state is in legitimate transparency.

But the fact remains that the information is available. We, like CALPIRG, lament Gov. Brown’s closing of the Reporting Transparency in Government website instituted by Gov. Shcwarzenegger. On the surface, it seems like a clear gambit to make access more difficult for the layperson.

Time will tell if Gov. Brown has any plans of offering a better alternative or if the data will continue to be kept where the sun doesn’t shine.

Chris Nelson is the editor for the CAFwd blog and a Social Media & Content Specialist for California Forward


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