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Sunshine Week highlights technology issues in state government

Happy Sunshine Week.

Never heard of it? Sunshine Week was founded in 2002 by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, but it has caught on with "good government" groups nationwide. It coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, who is known as the "Father of the Bill of Rights."

This Sunshine Week, March 16-22, finds California state government is struggling with several issues around public disclosure and Internet technology. More than a decade after the business world was transformed by the Internet, many forces are pulling state government further and further into the online world.

Take Teri Takai. In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he was hiring her as the state's first-ever chief information officer, a Cabinet-level position with authority over the state's information technology policy. She spent 30 years at Ford Motor Company, then served as the CIO for the state of Michigan for five years. Her goal is to overhaul the state's technology infrastructure, making the state run more efficiently while increasing the amount of information available to citizens online.

"He wants to make sure it's part of the legacy he leaves," Takai said of the governor while speaking to a group of state workers last week at an event called "The Online Face of California State Agencies."

Takai talked about one of her major early projects as state CIO, a state "best practices" Web site (http://www.bestpractices.ca.gov/). Based on the mega-popular Wikipedia online encyclopedia, it will provide a centralized place where people can write down the best procedures for a variety of tasks that state workers have to do all the time. Entries can range from providing good customer service to dealing with information technology or even having the most eco-friendly office possible. The site, which has been in the works since late last year, is scheduled to go live next month.

Only registered users with valid state government e-mail addresses will be able to edit the entries, but anyone will be able to view them. A seven-member "best practices team," made up of representatives from a variety of state agencies, is currently circulating a draft proposal for the Web site. The site will also embody much of what's best about the Web, according to Kris Ogilvie, manager of the California State Library Government Publications section and a member of the team.

"It's not a lot of graphics," Ogilvie told the audience. "It's mostly text. It's free."

But Takai will also need to take on tougher tasks, such as dealing with a hodgepodge of technological systems across state government. Some of these are 30 or 40 years old, incompatible with other systems, and no longer supported by any vendors. As a result, it's impossible to do some things that are taken for granted in the private sector. For instance, Schwarzenegger can't send out a single e-mail to every state worker.

"The state, for a variety of reasons, has let some of our computer systems age dramatically," Takai said.

Other state agencies are also getting into the act. For instance, last month the state Fair Employment and Housing Agency put its employee complaints system online. This move came after years of call center staff at the agency reporting that workers were calling from their jobs and whispering employment complaints about their bosses.

"To have to call a number between 9 and 5 to complain about your employer can be a little tricky," said Amanda Fulkerson, communications director for state and consumer services agency, which oversees Fair Employment and Housing. "For decades, that's the way it worked."

Another goal is to modernize the state's recruitment and hiring process. Getting a state job can be notoriously slow and low-tech. Now the state personnel board is moving more and more of the hiring process, from job listings to applications, online. The eventual goal, Fulkerson said, is to allow applicants to log on securely, using technology that will verify that they are who they say they are, and actually take timed state qualifying exams via a Web site.

"We're going to completely revamp the way we go out and look for applicants," Fulkerson said. "College students don't have six or seven months to wait around on a job application. They've got student loans to start paying off."

This points to a generational issue now facing a state government workforce likely to have a disproportionate number of retirements in the next few years. The state has a goal of hiring more younger workers, but in the meantime, older workers may need to adapt to a workplace with more technology, faster change, and uncomfortable amounts of disclosure.

Meanwhile, a variety of forces are using the Internet to try to pry open state government. This has already led to something of a culture clash – which could be seen in front of the Sacramento Bee last week. Members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents thousands of state workers, protested there against a new Bee database that allows users to search state worker salaries by name.

Jim Zamora, a spokesman for SEIU, said his organization has no problem with listing the salaries of highly paid supervisors, or even listing salaries of rank-and-file employees overall. However, the search by name function has some troubling consequences, he said. Union leaders have received about 15 complaints from women – some of whom changed jobs to have a lower profile – who had restraining orders against ex-husbands or boyfriends. One woman received a call from her ex-husband within hours of the database going up, Zamora said.

"He gets her on the line and says ‘I just wanted to let you know I found you,'" Zamora said. "There was no explicit threat, but she was scared as hell." 

Other workers had similar concerns. Theresa Taylor, a senior compliance representative with the Franchise Tax Board, said her organization frequently has to deal with upset people.

"What if someone actually shows up outside the gates and waits for me?" she asked, speaking to the Capitol Weekly while marching at the protest.

Some of these objections may be generational. It has been widely noted the Capitol Weekly's online database of Legislative salaries was widely embraced by workers inside the Capitol, who tend to be younger than the state workforce overall. Besides getting thousands of hits a day, it was used for everything from negotiating pay to social networking. Zamora said the difference is that legislative workers know they're going to work directly for controversial public figures – and they know what comes with such a job.

But state workers have made a similar decision, contends Emily Francke, executive director of the "good government" group Californians Aware. State workers, she said, have chosen to take a job paid for with the public's money. She said she supports some reasonable safeguards to protect workers, but that in general, public spending should be a matter of public record.

Hers is one of a number of organizations that will continue to work to shine light on state government. In fact, Californians Aware rolled out a new service this week to help citizens with public records requests. With several levels of services, the group will show people how to submit requests, or file the requests for them, and it has an attorney help create a paper trial.

Overall, Francke said she was encouraged by the direction state government was headed in terms of disclosing more information – but that some agencies are moving faster than others.

"It really just depends on the priority
the agency put on disclosure," Francke said. "Some agencies are taking it upon themselves without any mandates."

Capitol Weekly's Allen Young contributed to the this report

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