The Abercrombie administration’s push to modernize the state’s online services is showing results in two agencies that are keys to assuring accountability in government.

The State Campaign Spending Commission and Hawaii State Ethics Commission have both recently upgraded their online presence in ways that illustrate how the public can benefit from better uses of technology, as well as problems agencies face in trying to become more open and transparent.

Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao said the agency’s public face, a redesigned website unveiled last week, is just one of a series of initiatives aimed at making life simpler both for the candidates and political committees the agency regulates, and for the public seeking to better understand the sometimes murky world of money and politics.

Other initiatives include a newly revised strategic plan that spells out the agency’s mission (“to maintain the integrity and transparency of the campaign finance process”) and a series of practical goals.

The website has been totally redesigned, using a new format that is slowly being standardized across all state agencies.

In the process, the agency simplified and streamlined, removed overlaps and duplication, and created a clean and modern look.

“There are only three big buttons on the side, and from there you can pull down the all the information you need,” Izumi-Nitao said.

These link directly to required disclosure reports filed by candidates and political committees, which are available for public viewing, and to a recently introduced searchable database compiling all campaign contributions and expenditures as far back as 2006.

“We want to engage the public and promote voter engagement,” Izumi-Nitao said. “We can’t make people register to vote, but we can make it easier for them to know know who they are voting for and where the candidates get their money.”

The commission is looking to make further improvements before the 2014 elections.

“I would like the data to be more visual, so when you look at a candidate, you can see very clearly where the money came from,” she said. “I would like to have an app that you could click and see a pie chart of how candidates are getting money, who’s giving to their campaigns, information in a form that can be digested fairly quickly.”

The commission is also revising its guidebooks and manuals, and coordinating them with a series of brief, e-Learning videos.

For example, the commission’s guide for candidate and noncandidate committees explains the legal requirements for record keeping and reporting, but most requests for assistance have been practical questions of how to file online campaign reports.

So the e-Learning video will walk through the process with step-by-step screen shots showing what buttons you have to push and how to navigate through the process. “We’ll show how you file, in contrast to why you have to file,” Izumi-Nitao.

A bill awaiting the governor’s signature could streamline the process further, beginning with the 2016 election cycle. The measure, House Bill 1147 requires disclosure of top contributors to so-called Super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions as long as they operate independently of any candidate or campaign. But another provision requires any corporation spending more than $1,000 in an election to register as a noncandidate committee and provide more detailed disclosure than corporations currently provide. If signed into law, those three buttons on the website can be reduced to just two.

The Campaign Spending Commission benefits from a state law requiring candidates and political committees to file required disclosure reports electronically. This freed the commission from maintaining a dual system capable of handling reports filed on paper as well as those filed electronically.

The State Ethics Commission, on the other hand, has not had a system for online filing, mandatory or otherwise, and is swamped with mountains of paper. This year, however, the approximately 1,700 state officials and employees required to file annual financial disclosure statements will have the option of completing and submitting the form online.

The form, in pdf format, can be completed online and automatically submitted, or attached to an email and sent to the agency, according to the instructions accompanying the new forms.

Hundreds of registered lobbyists and the organizations that are represented by them will also be able to use the commission’s new online system to file reports detailing their spending.

Although reports can be completed and filed online, it isn’t true electronic filing, according to Les Kondo, the commission’s executive director.

“We didn’t have the funds,” Kondo said.

Kondo estimates implementing a true electronic filing system, such as that used by the Campaign Spending Commission, would cost upward of $50,000, money simply not currently available to the cash-strapped agency.

The commission was also unable to draw on technical support from the state’s Information and Communication Services Division, part of the Department of Accounting and General Services. ICSD staff provided key assistance as part of the Campaign Spending Commission’s update.

“We haven’t been  able to take advantage of that, probably because we’re a legislative agency,” Kondo said. “We weren’t able to get free services, and didn’t have that kind of money in the budget.”

“So this is not as good as it could be, if we had the money, but it’s better than what we had.”

Commission staff currently scan all printed reports submitted on paper before filing them electronically and making certain documents publicly available online.

Receiving the forms electronically should speed up the process, and Kondo said he’s counting on making additional tweaks to increase efficiency further.

“Shifting to electronic filing will be a big plus for our clerical staff,” Kondo said. “It’s a big step in the right direction.”

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