CALPIRG transparency report raises broader questions on public access

150 150 Robb Korinke

Last week CALPIRG released a new report on Transparency in City Spending, evaluating transparency efforts in 30 of the nation’s most populous cities. The report evaluates the online availability of spending information for each jurisdiction, as well as the use of more robust ‘checkbook’ tools to aid residents in seeing what specific vendors were paid.

California cities notably finished at both the top and bottom of the overall ratings in the report. San Francisco, long an innovator in the public space, rated third overall, just behind New York and Chicago. Los Angeles and San Diego had identical scores that placed them in the middle of the pack, while Riverside and Sacramento were near the bottom of the list.

While this report is to be lauded for its well-designed rating system and for calling attention to the key tools employed by the best performers among its sample group, it is equally important to note the larger questions it raises for the current and future state of transparency at the local level.

Sadly, local level transparency efforts have not yet kept pace with innovation and technology. CALPIRG notes that 46 states now provide ‘checkbook’ level detail on their spending. In California, typically only the very largest cities provide such access, and holistic data on local revenue and expenditures is really only available via State Controller reports, which themselves lack detail and have some significant limitations. One very notable example of a small city with a ‘checkbook’ tool is the City of Bell, which launched a new website just last week. 

It is, of course, important to recognize that such efforts require resources. As both a City and a County, San Francisco is among the best-resourced local governments anywhere. Sacramento has, on the other hand, been forced to lay off hundreds of city workers from vital departments. This is not to excuse its marks in the CALPIRG report, but as with all transparency efforts, perspective is key.

By the same token, if Kansas City can do it, why not Sacramento or Los Angeles? CALPIRG identifies many of the right activities, but residents of these cities – and indeed, hundreds of others – may be left wondering exactly why their city isn’t keeping pace?

Certainly resources and culture both play a role. Due to greater resources, reporting and data availability is considerably more available in large cities. As with any issue, the organizational and local culture also play a significant role – a key reason reports such as CALPIRG’s are useful when making apples to apples comparisons.

But using the yardstick employed by CALPIRG, would not the other 480 cities in California not covered by the report receive poor or failing marks? Virtually no small or medium size cities produce dashboards such as those seen here or here.  Are residents of San Dimas not entitled to similar access as those of San Francisco? Are such comparisons even possible?

Looking beyond spending data, there are very significant areas of local government activity to which the public has little or no real access. Local campaign finance is among these, with just a handful of California cities providing any online tools or lists of active campaign committees, donors and expenditures. A handful of jurisdictions have also begun publishing lobbying activity, critical for large cities and counties.

As suggested by CALPIRG’s notations of ‘emerging’ and ‘advancing’ cities, the California Forward Transparency Portal also seeks to establish aspirational standards for local governments. Highlighting best practices is a key component, as is recognizing positive progress towards established standards.

The Transparency Portal is striving to take available data and connect it with California residents, while also examining how people and technology are working to build more engaged communities. With continued public attention on the issue and the rapid advancement of online tools for transparency, San Francisco and New York shouldn’t have a monopoly on “A” grade transparency for long.

This piece was originally published on the Transparency Portal blog.


Robb Korinke

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