Last month, the Federal Election Commission invited the public to participate in a January 14th hearing on how the agency can improve its compliance and enforcement processes. The FEC is encouraging the public to submit written comments and to testify at the hearing. Naturally, as a frequent user of campaign finance data and often critic of the agency we jumped at the chance.
In our comments (online here), we addressed the FEC’s mandate to disclose campaign finance information to the public with five suggested improvements.
The FEC’s Web site is the most important tool the agency has to fulfill this mandate, and as such it should be much easier for the average person to use. Certain aspects of the site, such as the maps on the homepage, embrace the creative and interesting ways the Internet can be used to inform the public. However, much of the site uses technical or legal language that is difficult for the average citizen to understand. In other cases, data is provided in cumbersome, outmoded ways that fail to take advantage of the dynamic nature of the Internet. The agency’s site should adopt clear definitions, plain language and intuitive use of links and other tools that are the hallmarks of a user-friendly site and should be primary considerations as the agency undertakes a redesign. The FEC should add more cutting-edge Web features to their site. At its best, the Internet allows users to add value to data available on one site and make it available on other sites. The New York Times and OpenSecrets.org provide users with the ability to use FEC data outside the confines of the particular site from which it was retrieved. But, because the FEC is the primary source for the data, and because it is the FEC’s duty to publicly disclose the data, the FEC should not leave the responsibility of making the data usable to outside companies or not-for-profit organizations. In particular, the FEC should provide Web services that allow data from an official FEC search to be syndicated on other Web sites or used programmatically by other software, such as RSS feeds, APIs and updated regularly.
The FEC should improve its data architecture, which would enhance the agency’s ability to make more information public in a timely, user-friendly manner. As the agency looks to provide the most meaningful data to the public, it must restructure the way the data is stored and how it flows outward. Currently, much of the information contained in campaign finance reports is truncated or lost by the time it reaches the public. For example, the COBOL-based official database is published in a fixed width format, allowing for 35 characters in the occupation/employer fields, which are collapsed into one column. The result is that occupation/employer information that is reported as “Associate Director of Mid-Atlantic Sales/Wal Mart, Stores Inc.” is transformed and reported to the public as “Associate Director of Mid Atlantic.” The precise title as well as the entire employer is missing, providing little relevant information in the public database. Over 500,000 of 2,328,000 records, or more than 20 percent, are truncated in this manner. The agency should abandon such outdated tools its currently using and adopt more modern formats that are less likely to become outdated, such as JSON, XML and SQL formats.
The FEC has implemented rules to facilitate electronic filing of campaign reports, including data formats for information such as donor name and occupation/employer. But improvements can be made. Unfortunately, it is extremely common for report data to be missing, incomplete or jumbled. Data that is filed in non-standardized formats is difficult to manage, may not be accurate and must be cleaned up to make it useful to the public. The FEC could mitigate much of the work currently required to clean up data by enforcing software standards more strictly and refusing to certify campaign packages that do not comply with such standards, and require that more types of documents be filed electronically.
As part of the FEC’s enforcement and compliance duties, senior staff and FEC Commissioners routinely meet with individuals representing candidates, PACs, campaign committees, corporations or other entities that are being investigated or have knowledge of possible alleged campaign finance violations. To address the appearance of undue influence or corruption, the agency should draft regulations that would require Commissioners and certain senior officials to report, online, within 72 hours, any significant contact relating to a request for FEC action. The reports should contain the name of the FEC official, the name of each private party who had a significant contact with that official, and a summary of the nature of the contact, including the date of the contact, the subject matter of the contact, and if the contact was made on behalf of a client, the name of the client. Information that would be exempt from disclosure under FOIA would not have to be disclosed.
We believe, these recommendations, if adopted, will greatly improve the public’s knowledge of campaign finance information. Strengthening public access to campaign finance data will increase the scrutiny of campaign finance activities, thereby improving compliance and enforcement of the law.