While California has some of the most robust disclosure laws in the nation, the state has not always used information technology to convert disclosure into genuine transparency. With a new generation of leaders in key positions in state government, however, a cultural shift toward real openness is underway.
Newly elected Secretary of State Alex Padilla is said to have “big plans” to use technology to engage voters and increase transparency. California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has taken strides to publish conflict of interest reports, and local governments across the state are working to improve financial transparency and campaign finance disclosure.
As State Controller, John Chiang made substantial strides with his Public Pay and BytheNumbers websites, and this week the Controller’s office announced that it has published financial records for nearly 5,000 Special Districts across the state.
This is welcome news. Just last year, California Forward (CA Fwd) partnered with the Special Districts Association to utilize Controller Data to visualize and lend context to financial information on more than 1,100 Special Districts throughout the state — those with an elected governing board.
It was no small task.
Faced with a Microsoft Access database and dozens of data points for Districts operating on numerous business models, CA Fwd developed its Transparency Portal as a unique bridge between these agencies and the public. The idea is to make it easier for citizens to find key information, and offer the agencies themselves a platform to inform their constituents of the unique challenges they face as well as communicate possible solutions.
We know the demand for this kind of information is high, and our Portal still receives thousands of site visitors a month. Now the Controller’s office has taken an important step and brought this information to its own portal that allows private citizens and creative web developers to access the information in a structured, easily accessible format.
Controller Chiang notes in his announcement that Special Districts are often the least visible and understood form of government. Yet the services they provide are vital. Californians receive much of their core local services from special districts—including water, sanitation, fire protection, and parks and recreation. Many of these services require significant infrastructure, financing and critical oversight. Controller Chiang and Controller-elect Betty Yee have taken an admirable step in the final key component this week.
The era of “big data” is descending upon government rapidly, prompting the release of reams of data. Can the public understand the activities of these government entities based on this information?
This is part of the core challenge that Ca Fwd’s own efforts strive to address: How to connect this information with constituents in a meaningful, digestible way? Doing so will prove to be the hallmark of genuine transparency in the future.
Often the objective of developing data portals such as the Controller’s is as much about engaging the technology community as it is everyday residents. They have the tools to process, visualize and interpret this data, and the Controller’s office is clearly looking to kickstart by inviting the public to utilize the raw data to create an app, program or other new tool as part of a “Build-a-thon” over the next 30 days.
So what will you build? Read more about the contest here.