Harris, Padilla shine light; citizens rejoice

Secretary of State Alex Padilla took office in December. Wednesday, Padilla unveiled a new “power search” contribution lookup tool to bypass the difficult Cal-Access website.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla took office in December. Wednesday, Padilla unveiled a new “power search” contribution lookup tool to bypass the difficult Cal-Access website. Sacramento Bee file

Wednesday was a good day for informing the public. Two top state officials flipped virtual switches and flooded some dimly lit nooks of government with light.

Voters will benefit. Streets will be safer. Social scientists and good-government advocates will be ecstatic. And the state didn’t spend an arm and a leg.

Attorney General Kamala Harris took the simple but significant step of providing easily accessible online information about in-custody deaths, arrests and police officers killed in the line of duty.

And Secretary of State Alex Padilla, working with the nonprofit Maplight.org, provided a search function on his website that will make it far easier for voters to track campaign contributions to state politicians and ballot measures.

California officials have a dreadful history of multimillion-dollar computer failures. But this time, Harris and Padilla got it right.

With Padilla’s encouragement, Maplight set loose about a half dozen employees who worked off and on for six months to vastly improve the search function for the secretary of state’s campaign finance data. They used a James Irvine Foundation grant of $100,000, peanuts by state standards. Padilla said a few of his aides helped, too.

The secretary of state-Maplight code is open source, so anyone with a desire to play with campaign finance data can download and crunch donations to California campaigns dating to 2001.

About a dozen California Department of Justice workers created the criminal justice website, openjustice.doj.ca.gov, without any extra money or fancy consultants. Harris’ existing budget covered it.

The site follows through on a promise Harris made earlier this year. She plans to provide more information in the coming months. Already, however, plenty of public information is more accessible today than it was yesterday, including deaths of officers and deaths in custody dating to 1980.

The death-in-custody data include race, gender, approximate age and cause of death, plus the jurisdiction. It can be downloaded into spreadsheets and sorted, to tease out trends and potential vulnerabilities in law enforcement.

Harris’ aides acknowledge that local agencies don’t fully report information about in-custody deaths. But perhaps agencies will become more attentive, now that the information is more accessible.

Harris’ effort ought to encourage other states. As we have learned since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the death-in-custody information that states and municipalities provide to the U.S. Department of Justice is often incomplete.

And both projects should serve as an example to state agencies, which are constantly making excuses about failed computer projects. There are many reasons why California’s massive initiatives go awry so often. But Harris and Padilla proved that not every project needs to cost tens of millions and require detailed bidding.

There are smart hackers out there looking for challenges. Some work for the state. For the sake of an informed public, let them take a crack at improving more calcified government websites. The people’s business shouldn’t be so opaque.