OPEN GOVERNMENT -- This blogger is not the only observer dissatisfied with the degree of transparency provided by the state's major spending disclosure website. Otherwise strange bedfellows Pedro Morillas of the California Public Interest Research Group and Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association placed a joint op-ed piece in the Sacramento Bee this week leading with the statement, "when it comes to government transparency, we are surely reading off the same sheet of music."
Amid the dark fiscal news, one ray of hope coming from the budget
fiasco was the governor's executive order to put government contracts
online and make them searchable by the public. Budget transparency,
while not a new idea, can be revolutionary. Public oversight of the
state's purse is a cornerstone of democratic government and provides an
added incentive for those in government to spend tax dollars as
efficiently as possible. Transparency is an important part of any real
The governor's Web site is up and
running, and is a significant step out of the transparency Stone Age
for California. The site, www.reporting-transparency.ca.gov/Contracts,
is searchable by department or supplier, and includes a few advanced
search options for the most inquisitive among us. The format is easy to
navigate, and the search results are easy enough to understand. The
governor should be applauded for these important steps.
is more to be done. The transparency portal lacks some simple
information that would be incredibly useful. From government contracts
to tax breaks for special interests, the governor's site could use some
bulking up. For starters, taxpayers should have access to all data
relating to compensation of public employees and members of government
boards, as well as the extent to which some corporate interests receive
tax breaks and the potential revenue loss associated with them.
simple improvement to make this tool far more searchable and useful
would be to describe spending items and tax breaks in non-bureaucratic
terms that people understand. Unlike many other states, for example, in
California there is no way to find out how much the government spends
on traffic lights or classroom desks. Current budgetary information is
virtually impossible to understand. Making the transparency portal
searchable by keyword or type of spending, as many other states do,
would make a world of difference.
California should be on the
leading edge of the nation's movement toward making budgets
transparent. But despite California's "high-tech" reputation, nearly
two dozen other states beat us to the punch. In the past few years, at
least 23 states already have mandated that citizens be able to access a
searchable online database of government expenditures. These states
have come to define what some call "Google Government," a new standard
of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and
accessibility. State governments are putting their checkbooks and IOUs
online in a format that puts information in reach and in context the
way that we've come to expect outside government.
Catching up to
the other states and becoming a leader in open government budgeting
will help us make better choices together about investments in our
community. We all have a stake in the success of our schools,
transportation system, public health and other public structures.
from the leading Google Government states shows that these Web portals
are effective, low-cost tools that bolster citizen confidence, reduce
contracting costs, and improve public oversight. The popularity of
these sites can be seen, for instance, in the millions of visits by
citizens to Missouri's Accountability Portal Web site and in the
increased number of businesses bidding for government contracts on
Houston's transparency Web site.
These reforms also save money.
The comptroller of Texas reports a savings of $2.3 million from more
competitive bidding. Estimates suggest that transparency Web sites save
millions more by reducing the number of information requests from
citizens and watchdog groups and by increasing the number of bids for
public projects. The biggest savings may be from avoided scandals that
we will never need to hear about.
The disconnect in recent polls
between taxpayers' support for public services and structures, and
Californians' unwillingness to pay for them, points to a need for
greater budget transparency. If the governor can finish what he
started, California's Google Government will be a vital tool to bring
some sunlight to the gray days ahead.