California in lower half of states in posting data online

Half of all states post more government information online than California according to a survey by media outlets. State agencies said that Caifornia’s size and its massive amounts of information made it difficult to post online. -DB

The Sacramento Bee
March 15, 2009
By Phillip Reese

SACRAMENTO – In North Carolina, residents can go to a government Web site and instantly look up the safety record of any child day care facility in the state. But not in California.

In Nevada, residents can review the financial interests of public officials online, seeing for themselves whether they might have conflicts of interest. But not in California.

And in Washington state, residents can search an online database to see exactly how the government is spending taxpayer money. But not in California.

About half of all states post more key public information online than California, according to a national survey conducted by media organizations as part of Sunshine Week, an annual effort designed to bring attention to open government. The home of Silicon Valley lagged behind states like Kansas and North Dakota in the survey, which was released today.

“You can make up excuses, but it doesn’t serve any of us well to be deprived of transparency,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.

Leno sponsored two bills mandating more information be posted online during the past couple of years; both passed the Legislature but were vetoed by the governor.

In California, the survey was conducted jointly by reporters with The Bee, the Bay Area News Group and Channel 10 news in San Diego.

Several California agencies that fared poorly in the survey cited the size of the state – and the massive quantity of records it produces – as the main reason they did not put some public information online.

“You definitely have to look at the fact that there are not really economies of scale when you are dealing with something like this,” said Roman Porter, executive director of the Fair Political Practices Commission. That organization collects, but does not post online, conflict-of-interest forms filled out by public officials. Twenty-two other states do post that information.

Open government advocates aren’t too sympathetic to that argument. It’s becoming easier every day to maintain and share large amounts of information online, said Terry Francke, founder of Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization that advocates for open government. The Fair Political Practices Commission, for instance, could set up an online form that would collect information digitally, and then share that information with the public.

Also, other large states did better than California on the Sunshine Week survey. New York and Texas, the second- and third-most populated states, both ranked near the top for posting information online.
“If a huge corporation sees that certain information is going to be in demand, you can bet it would be available online,” Francke said.

Francke did his own version of the survey and noted that even some of the information deemed adequate by the media surveyors was sometimes tough to find online and often incomplete.
Several California agencies do post a wealth of information online.

Everything you can think to ask about hospitals, for instance, is available at the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development’s Web site. The state’s Postsecondary Education Commission has more information about colleges online than any other state in the nation. And the California secretary of state’s office lets residents search tens of thousands of contributions to every state political candidate or committee.
The secretary of state’s office wants “to make information as open and accessible as possible,” said spokeswoman Kate Folmar. It has had campaign finance data online since 2000.

Others, though, seem to post information haphazardly, putting up data likely to be insignificant to most residents and not posting data that might be of greater interest.

For instance, the state’s Department of Social Services posts a variety of often-updated statistical reports about the state’s welfare system and food stamp programs. But if you want to know if the day care center your child attends has a clean safety record, you won’t be able to find it on the agency Web site.

Officials say they are working on getting that information online – they hope to have it available within the next few years. The difficulty, they say, is there are 80,000 licensed child care providers in the state, and it would be hard to electronically scan all the inspection and complaint reports for those facilities.

“We’re trying to put up as much information as we have,” said DSS spokeswoman Lizelda Lopez.

Lopez said confidential information must be deleted from inspection reports before they can be posted online.

Porter said the same thing about politicians’ financial reports, noting that some contain officials’ home addresses.

Collecting financial disclosure reports using an online form would make removing information easy, Francke said.

The Governor’s Office apparently agrees that it’s possible to remove sensitive information.

Earlier this month, the governor posted financial disclosure reports online for his Cabinet and other high-ranking officials. The move came following the resignation of State and Consumer Services chief Rosario Marin, who quit when the Los Angeles Times used a paper copy of her financial disclosure reports to show she was paid to give speeches to drug companies.

As for child inspection reports, other states have gotten around the privacy issue by posting searchable databases that simply state the number and nature of safety violations for each facility.
Some California entities post information online, but don’t make it easy to get to, or fail to label it clearly.

The California Department of Public Health, for example, has a lot of clearly labeled, easily accessible data on its Web site. But one of its most important data sets – a searchable database of nursing home citations and violations – takes multiple clicks to reach, and you have to know some obscure things just to find it.

First, users have to click a tab labeled “Health Information.” That makes sense.

But then they have to deduce that the next link they need to click is “Health Facilities Consumer Information System.”

Then they have to click a third link asking them if they want to find a facility.

Then they have to click another link labeled “Skilled Nursing Facility.”

Only deep in the fine print along the way is it clear that a user is headed toward a report on the nursing home’s safety record rather than just a facility’s name and address. Yet, if the steps are followed, the end result is a comprehensive listing of problems found at every nursing home in the state.

The journalists who performed the Sunshine Week survey didn’t find their way there until guided by public health officials, who said the information only recently went online.

Posting inspection reports of all sorts in an easy-to-find location online benefits everyone, including the facilities being inspected, Francke said. Otherwise, unofficial sites pop up to fill the demand, offering users the chance to rate their doctors or day care. The result, generally, is less reliable information.

As the government prepares to raise taxes, a lack of information about how tax money is spent will breed cynicism, said Leno, the state senator.

He still thinks there is a need for mandates forcing state agencies to post certain information online. But after two vetoes, Leno is going to bide his time.

“We have not brought the Public Records Act into the 21st century,” he said. “So I look forward to introducing this again once we have elected a new governor.”

Copyright The Sacramento Bee 2009