Calif. Transparency Site's Closing Highlights Demand for Centralized Accountability
As states continue to post more public information online, government transparency advocates say centralized sites are crucial to help citizens find what they're looking for.
A growing number of once-reclusive state records are now only a few mouse clicks away, with more state governments posting public documents online.
Some states upload detailed expenditures along with employee compensation. Others, like Texas and Kentucky, post complete copies of vendor contracts.
This information, though, can be difficult for citizens to track down. Public records are often buried among layers of various agency websites.
This is one reason why transparency advocates were dismayed when California shut down its Reporting Transparency in Government website last week. The site now directs visitors to other state websites maintaining inventories of public records.
Transparency and watchdog groups suggest centralized transparency sites provide one-stop shopping for citizens, making information easier to locate.
“California is really taking us in the wrong direction,” said Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “We should be building transparency sites that make the information transparent.”
Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said the website was originally created in response to concerns over travel expenses during former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration.
“We found that the site was poorly maintained, underutilized and had not been updated,” he said.
The records, except for the previously-posted travel expenses, remain available on other state websites.
Government transparency advocates argue this decentralization of records can frustrate citizens not knowing where to find information. Comprehensive transparency portal sites, Caramanica said, are a good model for cataloging government documents.
“It’s not enough to just say ‘The information is out there somewhere on the Internet, go find it,’” he said.
Westrup said cost and staff time were factors in the decision to shut down the California transparency site. The state's annual bill to maintain and support the site was approximately $50,000, Westrup said.
Caramanica, though, said transparency sites save money in the long run. Responding to records requests consumes less staff time when records are easily found online, he said.
Phineas Baxandall, an analyst for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, also expressed concern with California’s decision to shutter the site.
Along with making information more difficult to locate, disseminating records across multiple websites limits a person’s ability to compare figures and see the big picture, he said. It’s not easy to decipher, for example, what percentage of an overall budget a contract accounts for when it’s posted on a different website.
“It’s crucial to have it in one place,” Baxandall said.
A few websites, such as Michigan’s spending accountability site, offer graphical representations of spending.
U.S. PIRG graded each state government specifically on posting spending information for its annual transparency scorecard report, released in March.
The group found six states built new expenditure websites in 2010. West Virginia, one of 10 states receiving an ‘F’ in the report, launched its own transparency website in September.
It's unclear, though, how many states maintain centralized transparency portals with all types of public records. Baxandall, who co-authored the report, said it is difficult to quantify with so much variation among states.
Regardless, there's plenty of room for states to innovate and improve.
“Online transparency has made possible a whole new level of much more meaningful transparency,” Baxandall said.
U.S. PIRG compiled the following list of government websites that specifically posted spending information earlier this year. Other types of public records may be posted elsewhere on state websites.