States Move Towards Greater Government Transparency

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This week, California and Alabama joined the growing number of states advancing towards greater government transparency by adopting new online disclosure systems. In California, Secretary of State Debra Bowen reversed her initial opposition to providing a unified campaign finance database entirely online.

Pressure from groups like MapLight and California Common Cause — nonpartisan government accountability organizations — had been mounting on the state agency for over a year to institute the change.

Currently, campaign finance data is only downloadable in committee sections, complicating the research process. Likewise, to obtain the full database, interested parties need to pay $5 to receive a CD-ROM of the data by mail. September 3, 2013 was given as the activation date for the updated Cal-Access system.

Bringing the full database online was complicated by the Online Disclosure Act of 1997, prohibiting online publication of addresses and other personal information. Daniel G. Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight, said in a release:

 “When millions of dollars are being raised and spent every day during election season, a downloadable version of the database, made available daily, is what Californians need and deserve in order to know who’s funding public elections.”

East of the Mississippi, Alabama’s Secretary of State, Beth Chapman, announced a new electronic filing system for campaign disclosures Wednesday. Candidates will be able to file donor receipts instead of submitting paper documents that need to be scanned and filed. The new disclosure portal is set to be operational by May 29.

It should come as little surprise that both states scored poorly on the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Legislative Data Report Card. Released in March, the Sunlight Foundation gave Alabama an ‘F’ and California a ‘D’ in legislative data accessibility.

One of the criteria for the study was ease of physical or electronic access:

Datasets released by the government should as accessible as possible, with accessibility defined as the ease with which information can be obtained, whether through physical or electronic means. Barriers to physical access include requirements to visit a particular office in person or requirements to comply with particular procedures

Both California and Alabama scored below average in the ease of use category. Fortunately, these improvements are likely to result in better government transparency scores in the future.