Cork_Bulletin_Boards_With_Wood_Textured_MDF_Frame_Whiteboard OPEN GOVERNMENT -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today ordered the Internet posting of all state contracts valued at $5,000, as well as internal and external audits
of state departments and agencies, including information on operations, budget
and programs, dating back to January 1, 2008. 

Executive Order
S-08-09 thus adds a new component to the Reporting Government Transparency website, which already shows the statements of economic interests and travel expense claims of for the Governor’s office senior staff and deputies,
agency secretaries, agency undersecretaries and department
directors.

According to a press release from the Governor's office, the added posting will begin soon.

Starting June 19, summary information on all state contracts reported to the Department of
General Services will be posted on the Web

site within five working days, dating back to
March 2009. Starting
on June 12, internal
financial, operational, compliance and performance audits done by
departments will be posted on the Web

site dating back to January 1,
2008. Audits performed by outside entities such as the Bureau of State
Audits, the State Controller’s Office, the Department of Finance and the
Department of General Services will also be posted dating back to January 1,
2008.

Based on how the site works so far, it's likely that the contracts and audits will be posted as individual pdf documents rather than having their content presented in a searchable database.  While this relatively dumbed-down (or not yet smarted-up) spoonful approach is better than nothing, it's ironic that the Governor is now spinning the effort as a response to taxpayer demand in a moment of crisis ("In this time of deep
recession, it is more critical than ever that state government operates
efficiently and is accountable to the people"). The crisis may mean that individual document posting rather than searchable database facility is all that the state can now afford.

That need not have been the case.

Californians Aware tried to get the state to join, if not lead, the curve toward smart transparency by sponsoring a bill—AB 1393 (Leno) of 2007—that among other things would have called on the Attorney General to convene an advisory task force of public information, privacy and technical experts to report to the Legislature by January 1 of this year on the advantages, costs and savings of, and the safeguards needed for, requiring state agencies to post certain standard performance information on their web sitesas a matter of course “rather than making those records available to requesters on a request-only basis.” 

The bill called for the "(s)pecific consideration" of "records that relate to the compensation and economic interests of key public officials and consultants, and the performance of public agencies, including, but not limited to, the settlement of litigation."

The bill passed the Assembly 77-0 and the Senate 40-0, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it, calling the task force and its mission “unnecessary,” since “(m)y Administration's commitment to the Public Records Act is unwavering and I am confident future Administrations will share this attitude.”

Unfortunately, the Governor was misinformed.  AB 1393 was in part a reaction to our 2006 Public Records Act compliance audit of 31 state agencies, which showed an extraordinarily poor average on the first visit and a barely adequate average on the second—after refresher training of the responsible officials and employees, provided in response to a hasty Executive Order.

Since then the trend to “front-loading” governmental profile and performance data on state agency websites has accelerated markedly elsewhere, particularly in the area of finances. As noted in a recent report of the National Association of State Budget Officers,

In recent years, there has been a movement towards increasing transparency in government by requiring that budget and financial information be made available to the public.  In September 2006, Congress enacted the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act to create a publicly searchable website (www.federalspending.gov) for all federal contracts and grants. . . Currently, 17 states have authority either through legislation or a Governor’s Executive Order to create a searchable website database of state financial information.

The up-and-running state websites referred to in the article are those of Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Iowa.

The trend has progressed far enough that an international professional society, the Association for Computing Machinery, has developed seven recommendations to guide governments in making data available on the Internet in forms lending themselves to analysis and reuse by the citizenry.

Many Internet users are learning to control their online experience, including combining and analyzing information in innovative ways that go beyond what the data's original publishers imagined. Individual citizens, companies and organizations have begun to use computers to analyze government data, often creating and sharing tools that allow others to perform their own analyses. This process can be enhanced by government policies that promote data reusability, which often can be achieved through modest technical measures. But today, various parts of governments at all levels have differing and sometimes detrimental policies toward promoting a vibrant landscape of third-party web sites and tools that can enhance the usefulness of government data.

While giving due credit for the latest steps taken to put anything on line, one has to wonder whether, by the time the state can again afford to do the job as it should be done, Governor Schwarzenegger or his successor (and none of the currently identified contenders seems notably more keen than he for open government) will still sense a crisis of confidence impelling such true transparency.