How transparent is California’s government?

Lest my story yesterday about California’s disgraced politicians cast our state government as one big den of iniquity, a new study by government watchdog groups ranks California fourth in the nation for transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms.

The report by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity didn’t award any “A” grades, but five states got a B grade, 19 got Cs, 18 got Ds and eight received an F for epic Fail.

The groups concluded the top five most transparent and accountable states are New Jersey B+(87); Connecticut B(86); Washington B-(83); California B-(81); and Nebraska B-(80). North Dakota, Michigan, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia got Fs.

Reporters in each state researched 330 “corruption risk indicators” across 14 categories of government: access to information, campaign finance, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, budgeting, civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, pension fund management, ethics enforcement, insurance commissions, and redistricting. The methodology was designed by Global Integrity, a nonprofit that measures and promotes transparency and accountability in more than 100 countries around the world.

But don’t get cocky – another watchdog issued a report last week giving California only a D- in transparency, at least as it pertains to online access to government spending data.

The California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) third annual report is based on feedback from officials in 47 states regarding their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. This year’s report found that 46 states now provide an online database of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail, up from 32 states two years ago; 29 state transparency websites now provide information on government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits, up from eight states two years ago. Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Arizona got the highest marks.

“At a time when anyone with a smart phone can summon a satellite image of the capitol building in seconds, we should be able to see what’s happening inside the building just as easily,” said Pedro Morillas, CALPIRG legislative director. “As home to the tech industry, it’s disappointing and embarrassing that California is not only lagging behind, but actively moving in the wrong direction when it comes to keeping pace with current online transparency standards.”

CalPIRG contends states that created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost; a site recently taken down in California had cost just $21,000 a year.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • rew

    I tried checking up on campaign finance of candidates on Contra Costa County’s web site, it was sort of hard to find. I found it eventually, but another couple of times I gave up looking. They need to make it easier to access, you have to play detective to find the information on the site.

  • I think modern technology has improved transparency but there’s a lot of room for improvement. Data management, content management, Admin issues are all just a matter of keeping current and making it easily navigable. Sort of like “Access for Dummies” particularly for the older population. There must be a team of IT professionals that does this for every department? It may help to run a California Patch like the Berkeley Patch. I really enjoy getting local news every morning vis the Internet. Beats browsing through pages of stinky newsprint.