Cal Poly Institute Poll Shows Strong Bipartisan Support for Legislative Transparency Reforms

Sam Blakeslee
Founding Director of the Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, and a former California State Senator and Assemblyman.

“We the People.” Those first three words of our United States Constitution are as important today as they were at the founding of our nation. For no nation – let alone a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the equality and dignity of all persons – can endure and prosper without the active participation of “we the people” at every level of government.

Far too often, unfortunately, we see and hear a very different story: a government that is arcane and inaccessible, and a public characterized by apathy and cynicism. The public perception that government has become so big, so indifferent and so politicized that one person – citizen or legislator – can no longer make a real difference, has discouraged real participation and oversight by “we the people.”

Some say that Californians are uninterested in and do not wish to be engaged in their government. I, however, believe the public wants the opportunity to be involved. They want information about what is happening in their government, and they want it presented in a way that is quick and easy to find, understand and act upon.

To test this belief, I commissioned a bipartisan poll to measure the public appetite for five proposed reforms that would increase the level of access and transparency in state government. Through the Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, a non-partisan think tank, a public opinion survey was developed in partnership with two well-respected polling firms. We brought together a polling team comprised of one Republican polling firm, SmithJohnson Research, and one Democrat polling firm, Tulchin Research.

This survey asked 800 likely voters to provide their views on California government, their support or opposition to key government reform and transparency proposals, and how they might become more informed and involved in the activities of state government.

By overwhelming margins, Californians believe there is a genuine need for greater transparency and openness in California state government. The following five reforms each received strong support, ranging between 82% and 91%, regardless of party affiliation or ideology:

  • Searchable Documents: Massive volumes of government documents exist online without the ability to do a keyword search to easily locate information important to the publicWhen asked aboutrequiring all documents, including the state budget, to be available online with their content easily searchable with a search engine similar Google, California voter support reached 91%. 
  • Legislative Spending: In a recent PIRG Report that graded every state on government spending transparency, California came in dead last, receiving an “F.”   When asked aboutproviding a detailed quarterly report of all legislative spending, including travel, staff, perks, mailings and committees, California voter support reached 90%.
  • 72 Hour Wait Period: Often, powerful interests change controversial bills at the last minute leaving little or no time for the press, the public, and even other legislators to review what the bill says.When asked about requiring proposed new laws to be made available to the public in writing at least 72 hours before a final vote is taken, California voter support reached 89%.
  • Video Recording: Currently many legislative hearings are not video recorded. Compounding the problem, no minutes, transcripts or list of participants are produced for the public to review. When asked aboutrequiring all public hearings in the Legislature to be video recorded and made available to the public on the Internet within 24 hours after the hearing, California voter support reached 86%.
  • LAO Analysis: Currently, analyses of proposed new laws are performed by partisan staff members who work for politicians. These analyses are very powerful in shaping the dialogue and public debate on issues before the Legislature. When asked aboutrequiring that the official analyses of proposed new laws be done by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, instead of legislative staff, California voter support reached 82%.

Each one of these five reforms was then robustly challenged with critiques to determine if they held up under fire. In each case, support fell only modestly and continued to outpoll “no” votes by 2:1 to 3:1 margins. Making these results even more intriguing is the fact that support for these measures were virtually identical regardless of party affiliation, ideology, ethnicity or geography. In such a polarized political environment it’s rare to see such broad based bipartisan support for any package of reforms.

It is clearly evident that Californians stand ready and willing to take action and engage with their elected officials, and to support critical reforms to make government more accessible and accountable.   I know that “we the people,” working together in a genuine spirit of community can restore confidence to our institutions of government and enact meaningful reforms to invite greater citizen participation.

This sort of enhanced transparency opens the door for next generation technology tools that empower civic engagement. One such example is a solution that we’ve developed at the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy. This online platform, called Digital Democracy, is a new tool that will allow keyword searching and social media sharing of videos of legislative hearings. It’s a first of its kind tool that we are turning over to the public next week.

In the spirit of transparency, the poll is available at the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy website.

Sam Blakeslee is the Founding Director of the Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, and a former California State Senator and Assemblyman.

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