Digital Communities

Will California Mandate Local Government Data Inventories?

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would force cities and counties to conduct inventories of the systems used to collect and store government data.

by / April 27, 2015
SB 272, by California State Sen. Robert Hertzberg, would require local agencies that collect public information to provide a list of the software and systems they use. Flickr/Christopher Michel

California could become the first state to require that local governments maintain a list of the technology systems used to collect and store public data.

Senate Bill 272, authored by Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, calls for California’s 58 counties and nearly 500 cities to catalog the software they use that accumulates public information, including how often it is collected and who’s in charge of it. The measure is meant to help local agencies and citizens better understand what data exists and empower them to use it, according to a fact sheet on the bill.

“I have not seen something like this in any other state,” said Emily Shaw, national policy manager of the Sunlight Foundation. “Lawmakers in other states are working to get – or have succeeded in getting – local governments to post data to a central state website, but the local inventory is not something I’ve seen yet.”

Shaw added that the Sunlight Foundation strongly supports SB 272. She explained that providing insight into what information governments have at their disposal is a critical first step to improving public access to data. Inventories, she noted, are ideal for helping move along the process of data discovering and sharing.

The League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties are both monitoring the bill. The Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) has not taken a position yet.

But while pushing for greater open data proliferation has its benefits, there are some potential issues for local agencies.

In a joint letter to Hertzberg, the RCRC and Urban Counties Caucus said they are concerned that the bill institutes an unfunded mandate to help support cataloging and inventorying the data. That’s problematic for local agencies because they can’t receive reimbursement for costs associated with complying with the California Public Records Act.

In an interview with Government Technology, Hertzberg brushed aside the argument that counties could need additional funding and manpower to carry out the inventories. Instead, he argued that the benefits of his legislation will result in cost savings, particularly as more open data can be accessed remotely by citizens, instead of staff manually answering requests for information.

“We’re going to have to move the whole government into the future – local governments and everybody else,” Hertzberg said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to save a lot of money.”

Shaw, however, said that the inventories could pose a fiscal challenge for local governments, particularly those that aren’t currently interested and invested in open data. But she’s hopeful they can see the potential benefits the catalog could provide them.

“Inventories may also be useful for eventually lowering the cost of public records requests, since they will clarify which systems of records are of greatest public interest,” Shaw said. “If those data sets can be constructed in a way that allows them to be easily published online, this proactive step can help local governments avoid hours of public records request response.”

Despite the local government concerns, SB 272 is rolling along in the California Legislature. The Senate Governance and Finance Committee passed the proposal with a 7-0 vote, as did the Senate Judiciary Committee, on April 21. The bill is now with the Senate Appropriations Committee. A hearing is set for Monday, May 4.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.