EDITORIAL: Digital transparency finally comes to California Capitol

California has long been a laggard when it comes to open government and transparency, and that record has continued into the digital age.

Despite being the birthplace of the personal computer industry and home to the Internet’s most successful companies, California government has never been on very good terms with the Internet.

This extends to, or maybe begins with, information about the Legislature, bills under consideration, lobbyists and influence peddling. The secretary of state’s website is a mess, and searching online records for links between interest groups and legislators is barely easier now than it was back in the day of paper-filled manila files.

That’s why a new website built by students at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, is so encouraging.

Called Digital Democracy, the nonprofit project and its website promise to do wonders to promote citizen access to government and the legislative process. A beta site, still in development, was launched this month. But it already includes valuable features with more likely to be coming soon.

Here’s a sample of what’s available now at digitaldemocracy.org:

• Video recordings of every legislative hearing recorded by CalChannel, with rolling transcripts and a search function that allows you to hunt for a speaker or a phrase and then see and hear it in seconds on your screen.

• A separate search tool that lets you type in the name of any person — legislator, state official, lobbyist or member of the public — and find every instance in which they spoke at a public hearing, taking you instantly to video of their testimony.

• Links to legislation showing the text of a bill, official analyses and votes.

• A search engine that helps you find background on legislators, lobbyists and others involved in the legislative process.

Still in development is a facial recognition function that would let you click on people you see in public hearings and find their names and public information about them. That might sound a little creepy, but it could be a valuable tool to let citizens learn who is influencing legislators and how.

That sort of boost for the advocates and voters is exactly the aim of the Digital Democracy project. People who work in and around the Capitol generally know who the players are, which interests support or oppose legislation, and which lobbyists wield influence.

But the public often is in the dark, and until now, people outside the inner circle of government have had few tools to help shine light on the process.

Digitaldemocracy.org is a project of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a program former Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee founded after he left the Legislature. Political science and engineering students built the website with grants from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is on the institute’s advisory board and has been a champion of digital government, is also a big supporter of the project.

Good for all of them for refusing to acquiesce to the Legislature’s benign, and sometimes malignant, neglect of the public’s right to know who is doing business, and how, in the Capitol.