05/05/2015 by Alexandra Bjerg
Transparency gets win as funds OK’d to digitize financial disclosure by public officials
The Legislature took an important step this week toward providing Californians easier access to financial disclosure statements by public officials. Assembly and Senate budget subcommittees approved funding for the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to build an electronic Form 700 filing system, replacing the current paper-based system.
Each year hundreds of thousands of California public officials, from your mayor to the Governor, are legally required to file a Form 700, also known as a Statement of Economic Interests (SEI), publicly disclosing their personal financial dealings, including income, investments, and gifts. It’s estimated that roughly half-a-million Form 700s are filed statewide every year in California.
Although the average Californian may be unaware of their existence, the aim of these reports is to strengthen confidence in government by assuring voters that officials aren’t putting their own financial interest ahead of the public interest. The problem is the primarily paper-based system can be cumbersome for filers, staff, and the public alike. Lacking a centralized digital hub, most personal financial disclosure records are accessible only in person at the filer’s agency, of which there are hundreds scattered throughout the state. But that’s changing.
In 2013, Governor Brown signed AB 409, authorizing the FPPC to build a central, online database for personal financial disclosure statements filed by government officials. Digitizing the process is expected to reduce administrative costs spent on processing and responding to requests, while simultaneously improving transparency and public accessibility.
But, modernizing the Form 700 filing system will require some upfront funds. So last year, a broad coalition, led by CA Fwd and consisting of good government groups, newspaper publishers, and lobbyists, sent a joint letter to Governor Jerry Brown and legislators urging them to prioritize funding for developing an online system.
And today, the Legislature approved the funds needed for the FPPC to bring the conflict of interest disclosure system into the digital age.
“We are very excited the Legislature approved our common-sense proposal for electronic filing of Form 700s,” said FPPC Chair Jodi Remke. “We know the current system is cumbersome for everyone involved and we are long overdue for an upgrade. This system will not only streamline operations at the FPPC, it will make filing easier for public officials to do and easier for the public to see vital information.”
“CA Fwd has strongly supported the FPPC's efforts to modernize SEI filing and disclosure, and offered recommendations for how to modernize the Form 700s filing system in our 2014 report Rebooting Campaign Finance Reform,” said Robb Korinke of Grassroots Lab and CA Fwd’s chief strategist on open data and transparency. “The project is a prime example of the opportunities to leverage technology to create more efficient and transparent public agencies, such as the Secretary of State’s office, to paint a clearer picture of activities around public decision making.”
Currently, the FPPC’s sister agency, the Secretary of State’s office, is 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.
"Public trust will improve as government continues to embrace digital transparency,” said CA Fwd’s Public Affairs Director Phillip Ung. “CA Fwd will continue to partner with the FPPC to ensure all state and local officials embrace this technology."
At a time when trust in government is low, removing barriers to acessing the economic interests of officials is key to ensuring public trust in the integrity and impartiality of governmental decision-making. California Forward will continue to encourage and actively support improving California’s disclosure systems.