Thursday, March 19, 2009

California's middling online record performance

California may be America's hub of technological innovation, but it ranks in the middle of the country in providing government information to the public online, according to an audit released recently.

Texas ranked first. It was the only state that provided Internet access to all 20 types of records that were surveyed — from school bus safety documents to performance audits to reports on gas stations that skimp on a gallon of fuel.

The Golden State finished 23rd — behind states such as Alabama and North Dakota — in the American Society of Newspaper Editors' survey conducted by journalists and volunteers in February and March. Bay Area News Group participated in auditing California state government.

The state received high marks for posting Caltrans contracts and bridge safety data online, but low marks for not routinely making department-by-department audits, child care center inspections and the financial disclosure statements of top government officials available on the Internet.

"There are still areas where we need to continue to improve," state chief information officer Teri Takai said Wednesday. "We want to move up in that survey."

The state needs to bring "our 40-year-old public records act into the 21st century" through better online access to records, said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. Leno has twice sponsored reform measures to the Public Records Act that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed.

One Advertisementof them would have required the formation of a study panel to recommend what records state government agencies should routinely post on their Web sites.

"With all the technology that's available, we should see more and more public records placed on line," Leno said.

Documents such as performance audits should be posted, Leno said. "The public is paying for them. A record isn't really public if there is no access to it."

The governor's office on Wednesday for the first time posted his statement of economic interest on its Web site along with those of 66 members of his senior staff and deputies.

They can be viewed at

Schwarzenegger also ordered all Cabinet secretaries and other top officials to post their statements of economic interests online starting April 1 in the wake of the resignation of Rosario Marin as head of the state Consumer Services Agency.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Marin received nearly $50,000 in fees for speeches, including payments from two pharmaceutical companies at a time when her agency was pushing to reduce prescription drug oversight.

The Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating Marin's outside income for possible violations of state ethics laws.

Among the items high-ranking government officials must disclose on statements of economic interest are outside income, some real estate holdings and gifts. About 100,000 are filed across the state each year, the commission's executive director, Roman Porter, said.

The commission collects about 20,000 of those forms, but it doesn't post any online. It lacks computer server space and staff to do so. The Legislature last year approved a pilot program in four counties allowing the forms to be filed electronically on the local level.

"The next logical step" with electronic filings, Porter said, is online postings, in part because it eliminates the need to scan paper copies.

But the Legislature would also likely have to mandate Internet postings before the commission would do it, Porter said.

California's mixed results in the report aren't shocking to those who have monitored the state's work with electronic records, said Terry Francke, general counsel of the watchdog group Californians Aware and longtime advocate of government transparency.

"I would have to drop 15 years worth of experience to say that I am surprised," Francke said.

The findings are "one more piece of evidence that public agencies do not yet think of the Internet as a real transparency tool. They have a way of pushing to you only the information they want you to see."

State agencies have a long record of not wanting to allow easy access to performance audits and program reviews, he said. Although the state auditor posts independent audits online, many that result from whistle-blower complaints, internal department-by-department audits have always been more difficult to routinely obtain, he said.

"You really have to kick the doors in to get those," Francke said.

A voluntary audit "is something no public agency wants to bring attention to even if it contains praise," he said. "It could be a perceived as a problem even if the audit shows normal behavior."

Francke's organization sponsored Leno's bill that would have created a study group. Francke said it likely would have called for the routine posting of audits.

"Almost without expense it could put up on the agency's Web site" and would be "a confidence building measure" for the public, he said.

Overall, the survey found nationally that Americans are likely to find it easier to view "a video of a water skiing squirrel" online than records that show whether their children's classroom or school bus is safe, the report states.

"Digital technologies can be a great catalyst for Democracy, but the state of access today is quite uneven," Charles Davis, executive director of National Freedom of Information Coalition, said in a statement.

"The future of Freedom of Information is online access and states have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of electronic self-governance."

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