California Watchdogs Seek Greater Government Transparency

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Debra Bowen, California’s Secretary of State, has come under scrutiny for the state’s archaic disclosure process for campaign finance reporting in California. Currently, records are available on the secretary of state’s website, but not in full and divided between several different searchable portals.

A letter signed by numerous California watchdog groups like MapLight, Common Cause, and the Sunlight Foundation, as well as State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) requested Bowen revisit the way California disseminates campaign funding information. The letter reads:

“Currently, your office provides a valuable service of creating CD-ROM copies of the Cal-Access campaign finance and lobbying database upon request. The public availability of this data is of vital importance to the health of California’s democracy, as it is critical to the maintenance of an informed electorate.”

The only way to receive a complete and all-in-one record of the state’s disclosure receipts is to pay $5 and wait for the CD-ROM to arrive in the mail. A far cry from the digital near-instant disclosure easily attainable given today’s technology.

Bowen responded by pointing out that the state is prohibited from disclosing political donors’ addresses online under the Online Disclosure Act of 1997:

“While the 14-year-old Cal-ACCESS system can do many things, it does not contain a design component that redacts, blocks or filters [addresses] from the data you would like to see posted on the Internet.”

She goes on to argue that implementing the technology and manpower required to abridge existing data so the Cal-ACCESS portal would remain in line with the Online Disclosure Act is just too great. Instead, she suggested the mail-in CD-ROM method be changed to an in-person exchange for faster access.

The impasse is indicative of a larger issue facing disclosure of public information. Access to up-to-date and easily deciphered government data is quickly becoming a hotbed for innovation while government agencies continue to rely on 20th century technology and outdated delivery systems to disseminate information to the public.

The Fair Political Practices Commission’s Ann Ravel is weary of this phenomenon and is looking at new ways to change how political gift giving is disclosed to California voters. KQED reported Thursday, “Ravel is hoping to get the data converted and visualized by the end of next year, so that voters don’t have to dig up form after form after form to find the information they’re looking for. The next step after that: doing the same thing with campaign contribution data.”