CA Finishes Last in Government Transparency Study

California ranked at the bottom for the second consecutive year on the annual report on state government transparency compiled by the Public Interest Research Group, an investigative and advocacy organization based in Boston. And the state’s beleaguered Department of Technology, or CalTech, can be assigned part of the blame for the last-place showing.

The rankings on PIRG’s sixth annual report are based on an assessment of each state’s open data and the ease with which users – the public, media and policymakers – can navigate the information and draw conclusions about how the money is being spent.

“There used to be a designated transparency portal for California,” said Phineas Baxandall, a PIRG senior policy analyst. “At some point during the Schwarzenegger administration, they pulled the plug on it and ended the program. There was going to be a major IT overhaul integrating the whole state government that would bring in data from the controller’s office, the governor’s office, every state office.” Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor from Nov. 2003 to Jan. 2011.

The report presents costs associated with making and maintaining a transparency-friendly website, which California has not responded to since 2012.

In the 2012 PIRG report, the state estimated a set-up price tag of $200,000, with a $169,400 annual operating cost for the now defunct In 2011, his first year back in office, Gov. Jerry Brown shut down the website because the information was available elsewhere. “But open government advocates have objected to the move, saying it will make it more difficult for citizens to track spending,” the Sacramento Bee reported at the time.

A state’s coffers don’t have a lot to do with the ability or willingness of that state to provide the taxpayers the information they deserve. “California has the largest revenue and expenditure of any state, yet received 34 points, the lowest score” of a possible 100, the report said. That translated to an “F” grade.

The top ranking states were Ohio at 100, Indiana at 97, Wisconsin and Oregon at 96.5 and Louisiana at 96; all were “A” grades. The following map shows the transparency of all 50 states, with the darker shades most open to scrutiny.

2015 rankings for public data transparency


PIRG also noted California…

“is weighed down primarily by bureaucratic fragmentation of its information. While the state has made some interesting and useful data sets available to the public — including, for example, one documenting spending at the county level — California does not succeed in creating a ‘one-stop’ transparency portal. For example, the state produces tax expenditure reports and publishes data on the Film and Television Production Incentive,but these are not available via a central transparency website, making this valuableinformation difficult to find for citizens and others who may not already know where to look. It would be relatively easy for California to substantially improve its score by providing clear links to sources of data from a central website.”

Public data is being increasingly placed online by states and there has been a push in California to put more of the state’s spending as well as tax revenues and compilations of information from state agencies in a form that can be easily understood.

But even the state’s attempt to create a decent portal for open data delivery was criticized by PIRG. The primary place for the public to sift through information is listed in the study as the Department of General Services site. PIRG found “the state does maintain a central data hub at that can be more readily considered a ‘transparency portal,’ but it was not evaluated for purposes of this report because it fails to score better than the website we evaluated.”


CalTech, which had 121 employees with salaries over $100,000 last year, has been lampooned for its failures over the years. In 2013, a $371 million plan to upgrade the state’s payroll system was suspended after $254 million was spent.

A week later, a $208 million project to modernize the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles was canned after seven years and an outlay of $135 million.

The state Task Force on Reengineering IT Procurement for Success came out with a study of the department’s follies in procurement that included posting status updates of projects that are in progress, “helping to increase vendor accountability.”


An audit of CalTech released last week by state Auditor Elaine M. Howle included criticism of the agency’s ability to calculate the status of current projects. It made no mention of publicly posting that information.

The audit is a 50-page lambasting of the department and opens by noting “the state has a history of failed IT projects — between 1994 and 2013, for example, the state terminated or suspended seven IT projects after spending almost $1 billion.”

Regarding the department’s work on posting information that can be dissected by taxpayers, the study noted, “CalTech needs to revisit its guidance to sponsoring agencies for creating their status reports and its procedures for reviewing and approving status reports to ensure that projects present meaningful information to the public.”

In the agency’s response to the audit, CalTech Director Carlos Ramos agreed with all nine recommendations for improvements.

Legislation introduced in February by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, would create a chief data officer to be appointed by the governor. The officer would work with CalTech in creating a way to provide public information online and at the ready.

“Maybe one of these days, the state will unveil this great it system and it will be so impressive and their rating will improve,” said Baxandall, the policy analyst at PIRG. “But until then, we’re in the dark.”

Originally published by

CARTOON: Sunshine Week

Sunshine Transparency Cartoon

Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

Public Sector Pay: Transparency and Perspective

Public sector labor leaders in California would rather that the public remain relatively ignorant about how well their members are compensated. But they are fighting a losing battle.

Because of California’s massive unfunded pension liability and other scandals, the public is demanding answers. Interests as diverse as taxpayer groups, business organizations, the media and some elected officials have moved aggressively, not only to address these problems, but also to ensure that there is much greater transparency about public sector compensation than we have seen in the past. For example, attorneys at Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association won several Public Records Act lawsuits against government interests — mostly at the local level — who were attempting to shield their compensation data from the public. And is a website which for years has been a clearinghouse for articles on pension abuses.

california spending transparencyBut it is not just conservative interests who are shining the light. Left of center newspapers like the Sacramento Bee and San Jose Mercury News, have fought very hard to expose the truth on employee compensation. Self-styled progressive John Chiang developed a powerful data base open to the public about state worker pay when he was California’s Controller. He is now the State Treasurer and we hope he continues his efforts.

Public sector labor is pushing back against all this disclosure asserting that compensation is not excessive in California. For example, they recently claimed that pension benefits are comparable to Social Security payouts. But a new study by Robert Fellner, Research Director for, shows that some retired public employees are receiving five times as much in pension benefits — mostly at taxpayer expense — as comparable private sector retirees receive from Social Security. The objective here is transparency, not a war against public employment. We all know someone who works for government and many are extremely competent in their jobs and deserve the pay they get. But there are several aspects of public sector compensation that aggravate taxpayers.

First is the lack of accountability. Taxpayers would gladly pay the highly competent more if government managers were empowered to fire the incompetent, indolent and criminals. Taxpayers and parents chafe at the fact that school districts can’t even fire child molesters without jumping through bureaucratic hoops costing much in both time and money.

Second, citizens are very concerned about how much of public sector compensation will be assumed by future generations, especially pension benefits and guaranteed health care for life. This is not a legacy of which we should be proud to leave our children.

Third, the personnel practices in government are totally out of sync with the private sector.  Just last week, theCenter for Investigative Journalism reported that thousands of state workers are hoarding vacation time. Unlike the vast majority of workers in the real world, some state employees will be able to cash out their vacation time worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when they retire.

Fourth, generous compensation for public employees would be far more palatable if others were doing well. But they aren’t. California continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and we rank number one in poverty. The economic recovery, trumpeted by political leaders in Sacramento, is shaky at best as many have simply given up looking for work. While so many Californians have seen a decrease in income and opportunity, businesses large and small continue to flee the state to escape high taxes and costly regulations.

Transparency and a more realistic perspective toward public sector compensation will be critical to California’s future. It is simply not healthy to have one segment of the citizenry treated as a protected class to the detriment of everyone else.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.