“Consistent” is not the first word one would use to describe the landscape of lobbying data released by municipalities. As revealed by our research, the formats and range of information local governments collect and disclose about lobbying activity varies quite a bit from one community context to another. After exploring the best practices for collecting and releasing this information, we created and recently published a Municipal Lobbying Data Guidebook. This guide addresses not only what kinds of information should be included in an ideal lobbying dataset, but also information about how that data should be collected and shared, regulated, and examples of the impact of having this information made available in an open way. (Something we’ll continue to explore in future posts.)
So how do municipalities measure up to these standards? We took a close look at three cities -- Austin, Chicago, and Philadelphia -- to explore what they’re doing well and where their lobbying disclosure can improve.
We've already covered Austin and Chicago. Now we turn to look at Philadelphia, which is a unique case in this set of cities.
WHAT COULD (AND WAS SUPPOSED TO) BE
Philadelphia's online lobbying disclosures were never supposed to look like they do now. When the lobbying disclosure law passed in 2010, the city contracted for software that would utilize electronic filing and share the information in a searchable format -- a requirement under the new law. The city had to cancel that contract, though, when the vendor failed to produce working software for the lobbying portal.
The city's current lobbying disclosure website is a temporary solution. Philadelphia recently put out a notice of intent to contract* for a new website with Acclaim Systems Inc -- the same company working on the state of Pennsylvania's lobbying disclosure system. The RFP for Philadelphia's new website includes a call for the use of unique ID numbers for filers; a way to publish registrations and expense reports "as PDFs and as data to the public searchable site"; user ability to search and download registration and expense reports "easily via the Internet" and to generate PDFs for each of these; and to create an online directory of lobbyists with photos.
The goal is essentially to have Philadelphia's website meet the two stipulations called for in the lobbying disclosure law: e-filing and searchability. The RFP calls for a system "that can be designed and implemented in a four-month timeframe or less," so if the contract receives final approval soon the site could be up this year.
Having some information available in the meantime is better than having none at all. We evaluate the current website with this in mind and with an eye toward how the next iteration of the website that comes after this placeholder might look.
WHAT EXISTS NOW
I. What data is available
Philadelphia links to its lobbying information from a webpage on its Board of Ethics site. It makes registration and reporting forms and instructions available. It also posts some completed lobbying registrations and expense reports.
The lobbying registration forms require the date of registration, the lobbyist name, address, and contact information, details about any affiliated political action committees or candidate political committees, and the name, address, and contact information for any principals or lobbying firms. This level of detail is in line with Sunlight’s Guidebook recommendations.