When State Controller John Chiang announced his new open data website last week, CA Fwd, which promotes technology enhanced government, offered him an opportunity to write an open data blog and why it matters for government and the people it serves. 

As California State Controller, my job hinges on having access to the State’s cash and budget numbers. Those are the numbers that also help me to tell the stories about what direction our State, communities, schools and businesses are heading.

Like California Forward, I have long believed making reliable, timely data public is an essential part of government transparency. We also share the belief that in order to enhance civic participation, we should be harnessing technology to allow the public to slice-and-dice financial information and create visuals that foster informed communication.

With this in mind, I took a hard look at some of the local government annual financial transaction reports my office collects and publishes. These 700-page documents are requested by engaged citizens and reporters and mailed out in hard copy or disc format. My office has published these reports for more than 100 years in seldom-used paper form. After a century, it was time to do things differently.

I launched bythenumbers.sco.ca.gov, making it easier for public officials and citizens to look up data, download raw numbers, create charts and search for other financial data by allowing users to drill down and get as specific as they’d like with financial information.

In significantly greater detail than was offered in the previous paper reports, the new website covers funds received and spent by California cities and counties, as well as property they own and amounts they owe. The “Open Data” format allows information to be viewed, downloaded and converted into charts that can be shared.

Later this fall, we will introduce major upgrades to the website that will not only include additional tools and features based on user feedback over the coming months, but will also provide data for each of California’s approximately 130 pension systems.

I am proud of bythenumbers.sco.ca.gov because it highlights how the State and local governments can harness technology to open up the books and encourage the public’s curiosity as to how their tax dollars are being spent. It’s a logical, good-government progression from the transparency efforts I started in the wake of the City of Bell scandal in 2010.

county_data_reportWhen Bells’ civic leaders set salaries, awarded government contracts and managed public resources outside of public scrutiny, they made their city the poster child for the effects of opaque governance. It was important to pull the doors wide open on public compensation in the aftermath.

The steps I took then then laid the groundwork for the work I am doing now. Here’s what was done:

To date, the site has been read more than 7.8 million times and has been a great resource for media, government employees and citizens alike. Today, anyone can visit www.publicpay.ca.gov and find user-friendly search functions and custom report-building tools. Users can download raw data for their own research and watch video tutorials.

The site is a roadmap for what is included in public pay and how tax dollars are spent in each of our communities. And as a whole, it shows government entities cooperating to better inform all Californians at a time when transparency promotes accountability, protects taxpayers from abusive and wasteful spending, and fosters increased public participation.

And because publicpay.ca.gov was created to prevent the next Bell, state and local governments now have a new tool to locate, investigate and expose waste and fraud.

Still, our work is not done. My office continues pushing for better technology to increase transparency in a meaningful way. When voters approved Proposition 30 – the temporary tax increase in November 2012 – to stabilize the fiscal health of K-12 schools and community colleges, we began restoring what was owed to public education after years of drastic cuts.

I launched the website trackprop30.com to detail every tax dollar raised by Proposition 30 and uphold the promises made to the public. This transparency tool helps taxpayers monitor every dollar raised, where it was allocated, and how it will be spent.

In approving temporary tax increases, voters entrusted their elected officials to use those extra funds to stave off more than $5 billion in cuts to schools and help restore their fiscal stability. The California Department of Education and the California Community Colleges worked with my office to share this important information with the public. We share the belief that being open and honest with information about our school’s finances equips the public to play a bigger role in the governance of our state.

Despite these efforts, there is always more that can be done to open the books and bring government closer to the people. With strong momentum and an ever-increasing public appetite for transparency, I will continue to look for better uses of technology that make it easier for Californians to engage both in their communities and with their governments.

Cross-posted at California Forward Reporting.