California open government initiative: Pdfs obscure transparent government

Reacting to recent scandals, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is requiring staff and agency executives to put travel reimbursement claims and gift reports online. But when the information is put into pdfs, it is not possible to access it in any intelligible way. -DB

April 2, 2009
CalAware Commentary

OPEN GOVERNMENT — We’re going to be a nag about this. Putting public officials’ travel expense claims and other integrity-sensitive information on the Internet as pdfs is not 21st Century transparency.

Governor Schwarzenegger is to be given due credit for reacting to a couple of scandals (and no doubt seeking to deter future abuses) by ordering his staff and top agency executives’ travel reimbursement claims and gift reports be placed on his website for all to see, along with their Form 700 statements of economic interests.

Please disregard the following if the Governor’s people are already hard at work on the real thing, but this is not the real thing.


Try to read them. Try to search by names in the lists. Try to find patterns. Try to relate the information to anything else without keystroking the data, line by line, into your own database. Try to imagine why—if for no other reason than as an internal check on officials’ potential for self-dealing (as shown by the Form 700s), or on their potential appropriation of state resources to their personal benefit (as shown on the travel expense claims and gift reports)—these filings are not already being made electronically, to a state-operated database searchable 40 ways for Sunday.

One would think these files, although public by law and originally designed in good faith as state of the art for the 20th Century, are now perpetuated in dumb, static pulp and ink as a barrier against meaningful public access.

This is not a problem unique to California, but some technically serious people are suggesting ways out of it. Or at least guidelines for the goals. The trend has progressed far enough that an international professional society, the Association for Computing Machinery, has developed seven recommendations to guide governments in making data available on the Internet in forms lending themselves to analysis and reuse by the citizenry.

Many Internet users are learning to control their online experience, including combining and analyzing information in innovative ways that go beyond what the data’s original publishers imagined. Individual citizens, companies and organizations have begun to use computers to analyze government data, often creating and sharing tools that allow others to perform their own analyses. This process can be enhanced by government policies that promote data reusability, which often can be achieved through modest technical measures. But today, various parts of governments at all levels have differing and sometimes detrimental policies toward promoting a vibrant landscape of third-party web sites and tools that can enhance the usefulness of government data.

The ACM recommendations are:
• Data published by the government should be in formats and approaches that promote analysis and reuse of that data.

• Data republished by the government that has been received or stored in a machine-readable format (such as online regulatory filings) should preserve the machine-readability of that data.

• Information should be posted so as to also be accessible to citizens with limitations and disabilities.

• Citizens should be able to download complete datasets of regulatory, legislative or other information, or appropriately chosen subsets of that information, when it is published by government.

• Citizens should be able to directly access government-published datasets using standard methods such as queries via an API (Application Programming Interface).

• Government bodies publishing data online should always seek to publish using data formats that do not include executable content.

• Published content should be digitally signed or include attestation of publication/creation date, authenticity, and integrity.

While we’re at it, let’s put in perspective the Governor’s persistent claims to leadership in transparency—claims repeated in today’s press release announcing the pdf postings.

“In 2004, the Governor championed and 83 percent of California voters approved Proposition 59 – the Sunshine Initiative – to amend California’s Constitution to further the people’s right to access government information by requiring the state to broadly interpret information requests.”

Fact: Proposition 59 was already on the ballot when Governor Schwarzenegger expressed his support, and he had nothing to do with putting it there and no power to stop it. He had nothing to lose in backing it, but as the 83 percent passage rate shows, voters did not need his urging to put it over the top.

“In 2004, Governor Schwarzenegger became the first sitting Governor to open his daily official state calendar for public inspection, and has since made his official state calendar public, updated on a bi-wekly basis.”

Fact: The release came in response to a California Public Records Act demand submitted only days after passage of Proposition 59, which made public access to the “writings . . . of public officials” a fundamental right under the California Constitution. Upon closer inspection, the Sacramento Bee called what was released “a Reader’s Digest version of his appointment calendar . . . so redacted as to be useless.”

“In 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger issued Executive Order S-03-06, directing California’s executive branch to train and ensure full compliance for information requests made under the California Public Records Act.”

Fact: The executive order was issued only two weeks after release of a CalAware audit of 31 state agencies that showed an extraordinarily poor level of compliance with some of the most basic requirements of the California Public Records Act. The Governor’s people would not admit a cause and effect, instead leaving the impression that the order sprang from his initiative. A publicly promised repeat of the audit six months later—the same persons asking the same agencies for the same records—showed a bare 70 percent passage rate. But the Governor then used his executive order as an example of his commitment to transparency that justified his veto of a bill that called for a study of what kinds of state information should be placed on the Internet for public access without having to make item-by-item requests. He called the study “unnecessary. My Administration’s commitment to the Public Records Act is unwavering . . .”

Copyright 2009 CalAware