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California State Lands Commission Opens Financial Data

On Thursday, the commission launched the OpenGov platform to improve budget transparency.

by John Twachtman / March 28, 2014
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom hopes the California State Lands Commission's financial information going public will change the culture of secrecy in government. Flickr/MayorGavinNewsom

The California State Lands Commission is the latest governmental body and the first statewide agency to open its finances to the public using the cloud-based platform, ushering in what Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom hopes will be a new era of transparency and public engagement.

“My hope and intent here is that State Lands will trumpet this and we’ll celebrate it, and then we’ll share it with other state agencies,” Newsom told Government Technology. “It doesn’t have to be [], it doesn’t have to be this format, but in the same spirit of what we are trying to do here.”

The budget information went live March 27 and is accessible online at OpenGov is a cloud-based software platform that allows governments to communicate fiscal information in a visual, easy-to-use manner that provides up-to-date and historical perspectives on budgets. Currently, it is used primarily by local governments, including a range of California municipalities such as Los Angeles, Palo Alto and Anaheim, as well as regional agency Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority. According to the OpenGov website, the budgets for the Lt. Governor’s office will be coming online soon. 

“This site is instrumental in communicating our budget to elected officials and residents, and clearly demonstrates our stewardship of California’s resources,” Dave Brown, chief of administrative services at State Lands Commission, said in a statement. “With OpenGov, anybody with an Internet connection can access this information at any time.”

And what the agency is trying to do is get not only elected officials, but also the public at large a greater understanding about the agency, which is responsible for things such as mineral management onshore and offshore up to three miles off the coast, every right-of-way and state related property.

“It’s an incredibly broad portfolio of responsibility and difficult to access, not the least of which … is the budget,” Newsom said. “I don’t care if you are the most learned accountant -- to truly understand the budget in terms of how you access it and navigate it, it’s almost impossible.”

Certainly elected officials should understand where the money in one of their state agencies goes, Newsom added, but there are millions of others who have no idea what the State Lands Commission is – what it does, why it matters, how much money it spends, where the money goes. "And they have every right to access that information in an easy way," he said. "When we make it difficult, it leads to more distrust and envelopes with further disconnection from government.”

Shaping Public Policy

While the ultimate effects on public policy of making this fiscal information public are yet to be seen, Newsom sees it as giving the public a stronger voice in the budget discussion.

“If everyone understood where state dollars go, local dollars and federal dollars go, they’d sure have a stronger and more powerful voice as to influencing those dollars in the future,” Newsom said. “The whole point here is empowerment – empowering people to help us make better decisions, make better policy recommendations and determine whether or not we are wasting money, investing money appropriately or inappropriately.”

And by using the OpenGov platform, information going forward that can shape policy will be more immediately available, without having to wait for an audit that could come years later, allowing for more immediate evaluation and re-evaluation of spending budgets and priorities.

“I’m hoping people see this as an effort of transparency and hopefully collaboration, because once that information is out there, it provides us a basis to have a much more collaborative dialogue with the public and even with other officials about areas in the budget that can be enhanced or reduced,” Newsom said.

He also hopes this will usher in a cultural change within government. Newsom noted that government personnel are under constant scrutiny from elected officials, the press and the public at large, leading to a natural default of secrecy. He recalled his time as mayor of San Francisco how many uninformed decisions were made, and how that culture continues to exist.

“Do not underestimate how many decisions are made completely in the blind, even by those we trust as experts in their fields,” Newsom said. “Do not think for a second I’m understating how blind those decisions are made in terms of information. … I started doing this 20 years ago, and it’s extraordinary that the public allows us to do what we do without the consequences of knowing how we do what we do.”

With this information now going public, he hopes that will change the culture away from secrecy.
“I think this agency and our state employees will see the benefits," Newsom said, "but it’s going to take some time."

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