In summary

They have the potential to save money and allow more citizens to participate, but the executive order that allowed them during the pandemic is about to be rescinded.

By Pedro Nava

Pedro Nava is chair of the Little Hoover Commission, pedro.nava@lhc.ca.gov.

Bill Emmerson, Special to CalMatters

Bill Emmerson is a member of the Little Hoover Commission, bill.emmerson@lhc.ca.gov. 

California is in danger of taking a big step backward when it comes to the state government’s use of technology. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature can prevent that from happening, but they must act quickly.

Last year, at the start of the pandemic, Newsom issued an executive order temporarily permitting state boards and commissions to meet via remote technology, with no physical location accessible to the public. 

What happened? Public accessibility improved, costs went down, and the state government glimpsed a far more diverse and inclusive future. 

Now these gains are in jeopardy. The governor’s executive order is scheduled to be rescinded on Sept. 30, putting the pre-pandemic rules back in place. In practical terms, that means no more remote meetings.

As members of the Little Hoover Commission – an independent oversight agency charged with recommending ways to improve state government – we’ve studied this issue. Our commission is one of the agencies that worked faster, leaner and more flexibly, thanks to our ability to meet remotely, and we surveyed dozens of similar agencies about their experiences as well.

Our new report, “The Government of Tomorrow: Online Meetings,” calls on the Legislature and the governor to update the state’s open meeting law – the Bagley-Keene Act – to reflect new technologies and the practical experience of the past year.

The commission offers two simple reforms to increase public access while capturing the efficiency and cost-savings of new technologies.

First, California should require state boards and commissions to provide remote public access to their meetings through a conference call, Zoom or similar technology.

A physical meeting location – such as a hearing room in the Capitol — is only accessible to those who have the time and resources to travel to Sacramento. Given California’s size, it is a high hurdle to expect members of the public to travel so far to watch their government at work. It’s an added – if not insurmountable – challenge for those who traditionally face obstacles interacting with state government, such as people who live in rural areas or those with low incomes or physical disabilities. 

Second, the state should make it easier for board and commission members to participate in meetings remotely. Such meetings offer substantial benefits to the public.

Of the state agencies that responded to our survey, more than 90% reported reduced costs due to remote meetings, mostly because taxpayers no longer have to foot the travel bills for board members. 

Remote access to meetings is a simple, cheap and manageable reform that will make state government more accessible and transparent.

It also will make the state government more inclusive. When boards and commissions meet in Sacramento, members have to take a day or two off to travel, attend the meeting and return home. That’s difficult for many people, including those who work, care for young children or aging parents, or live in distant parts of the state. People in those circumstances often opt out of serving on state boards, which ends up limiting their diversity. That would be remedied if they could attend from home – by logging on and participating remotely. California deserves and will benefit from an inclusive state government. Technology can help.

This state just spent a year proving it can easily and cheaply use remote-meeting technology to make government work better. Shockingly, California is close to abandoning that successful experiment. The state that birthed the digital revolution can do better. Tell your legislators that the state should reform the Bagley-Keene Act to allow remote access by everyone – and then attend a meeting or two to prove that the public is interested.

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Pedro Nava has previously written about California’s mental health system, the state’s Rebuilding Fund and labor trafficking.

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