Commentary

06/20/2014  by Alexandra Bjerg

Where does California’s reboot of outdated disclosure systems stand?

California Forward provided testimony yesterday at the Fair Political Practices Commission’s (FPPC) monthly meeting in support the modernization of California’s campaign finance (Cal-Access) and conflict of interest (Form 700) systems. Bringing both systems into the 21st century is a key element in CA Fwd’s Path Toward Trust, a set of proposals to increase transparency and confidence in California government.

“There’s universal consensus that the current process for filing and maintaining Form 700s is outdated,” said FPPC Executive Director Erin Peth while giving an update on efforts to develop an electronic Form 700 filing system. Despite recent efforts to improve accessibility, navigating the decentralized, primarily paper-based system can be cumbersome for filers, staff, and the public alike, noted Peth.

Roughly half-a-million Form 700s are filed statewide every year, estimated Peth, although some believe the number is even higher. Public officials, from your city councilmembers to your state legislators, must file a Form 700, also known as Statement of Economic Interests (SEI), publicly disclosing their financial dealings, including sources of income and gifts.

Last year, the Governor signed AB 409, authorizing the FPPC to build a central online database for personal financial disclosure statements filed by public officials. By streamlining the reporting process, the new system will simultaneously improve efficiency and transparency. Every jurisdiction that participated in a 2008 pilot project for e-filing Form 700s “reported increased efficiency, increased compliance rates, and a reduction in costs,” said Peth.

Currently, the FPPC’s sister agency, the Secretary of State’s office, is also pursuing the modernization of Cal-Access, the state’s online database for campaign finance and lobbying data. This creates an opportunity for some smart integration by designing a system that connects campaign finance and conflict of interest data.

Earlier this year California Forward released a report, “Rebooting Campaign Finance Reform,” offering recommendations for how to upgrade Cal-Access and modernize the Form 700s filing system.

Last month a broad coalition of good government groups, newspaper publishers, and lobbyists, led by CA Fwd, sent a joint letter to the Governor and the Legislature urging them to prioritize funding and staff to accelerate the modernization of both disclosure systems. Reading an excerpt from the letter, CA Fwd’s public affairs director Phil Ung, said, “a singular opportunity exists to coordinate these projects, create efficiency and improve overall transparency in campaign finance and the economic interests disclosure of elected officials. The state can pursue shared infrastructure or parallel development paths that leverage both projects and drive a cost effective process and streamlined system that bolsters transparency and efficiency.”

Acknowledging the opportunity, Peth said that the FPPC is actively working with the Secretary of State’s office to explore how “the architecture and the coding and such be done in a way that down the road…we have a public portal where you can access both campaign data and financial economic interest data of officials at the same time.”

California Forward will continue to encourage and actively support improving California’s disclosure systems. The FPPC’s efforts demonstrate how government can use technology to increase transparency, boost efficiency and help restore public trust at the same time.

Categories: Democracy, Cal-Access, Elections, Tech-enhanced Government, Accountability, Transparency, Government, Accountability, Cal-Access, Transparency

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