New Law Opens Door into the Financial Dealings of Public Officials

Originally posted at CA Fwd.
By Alexandra Bjerg.

A new law makes it easier for Californians to keep tabs on their public officials. Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed legislation sponsored by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) designed to provide greater public access to financial disclosure statements by public officials.

Hundreds of thousands of public officials, from your mayor to the Governor, are legally required to file a Statement of Economic Interests (SEI) publically disclosing their personal financial dealings, including income, investments, and gifts. The annual reports are intended to strengthen voter confidence in government by deterring officials from putting their financial interest ahead of the public interest. But accessing the records isn’t easy.

Despite California’s leadership in technology innovation, the state maintains an inefficient paper-based personal financial disclosure filing system. Lacking a centralized digital hub, most personal financial disclosure records are accessible in person only at the filer’s agency of which there are hundreds scattered throughout the state.

Disclosure won’t translate into greater accountability if the public can’t access the data.

“The current system of disclosure for public officials is scattershot and doesn’t provide the public the information it deserves on the economic interests of public officials,” said FPPC Chair Ann Ravel.  “This landmark bill will revolutionize the ability to hold public officials accountable across the State.”

In an effort to bring the conflict of interest disclosure system into the digital age, the bill, by Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D- Fullerton), authorizes the FPPC to build a central electronic database for personal financial disclosure statements by government officials.

“The new filing system will be vastly more efficient for the person reporting, as well as for those accessing the data,” Ravel said.  The expanded database streamlines the reporting process and puts searchable financial disclosure records at the public’s fingertips.

Shifting records from a physical filing cabinet to a digital folder is expected to increase efficiency by reducing administrative costs spent on processing and responding to requests. In addition, easing public access can foster greater accountability and improve governance, saving taxpayer money in the long term.

“My focus at the FPPC has been to leverage technology to provide the public with more information about campaign and governmental disclosure,” Ravel said. “This is a major landmark in that effort.”

Ravel’s efforts represent a great example of how technology-driven transparency can enhance efficiency, improve governance and repair the relationship between the public and their government.

Particularly at a time when trust in government is exceedingly low, it’s vital that voters have the tools to ensure public officials aren’t using their public positions for personal financial gain. Removing barriers to access economic interests of public officials is essential to ensuring public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of government and governmental decision-making.

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