While the word “lobbyist” might evoke images of power brokers in Washington, D.C., lobbyists are also influential at the local level of policy and there are plenty of individuals and firms working to sway local government officials to act on behalf of certain interests. Some municipalities are making an effort to bring transparency to this local-level lobbying. As we explore municipal open data policies, we wanted to look at how many municipalities already release lobbying data, in particular, and what it looks like.
BASIC ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF ACTIVITY
The most basic kind of municipal lobbying disclosure is simply acknowledging which laws and codes govern the process. This is seen on the websites of cities like Atlanta, Georgia, which notes that local lobbyists are required to register with the State Ethics Commission under state law, though there are no local laws regulating lobbyists. Baltimore County, Maryland, notes on its website that it has a code that requires lobbyist registration and reporting. These reports are not shared online, however. Henderson, Nevada, details its lobbyist requirements on its website with links to the relevant city ordinance and documents. It, too, does not post the completed documents online.
MINIMAL PROACTIVE DISCLOSURE
Other municipalities are proactively disclosing at least some of the completed documents that lobbyists are required to file. Albuquerque, New Mexico, provides PDFs of lobbyist registration statements dating back to 2009. These scanned versions of handwritten documents are not searchable or sortable, but releasing these documents at all is one step toward disclosure about who is trying to influence local government.
Some municipalities have attempted to provide greater access to their lobbying information, with mixed results. Tamarac, Florida, has a searchable list of lobbyists and of commission visitors, but it does not appear to provide a full list for either (let alone a bulk download option), so users have to know what they’re looking for in the data. Denver, Colorado, doesn’t have a search portal, but it provides a downloadable list of currently registered lobbyists in the City and County of Denver. Austin, Texas, meanwhile, makes it clear to users that they can search its lobbyist database or browse complete lists.
A few municipalities across the country have gone beyond most others in making lobbying information accessible. Chicago appears to release some of the most detailed and interactive lobbyist data among U.S. cities. The city’s data portal contains information about registered lobbyists, compensation, gifts, expenditures, and termination. The data is searchable, sortable, and downloadable and made available in open formats. In part, this data exists (and its upkeep will be made easier) because Chicago also has an electronic filing system that lets lobbyists register online.
New York City’s transparency portal also includes a high density of lobbying information, including its lobbying ordinance, annual reports, reporting periods and more. It has a lobbyist database that is searchable and browsable. However, the data is not downloadable and the platform restricts your ability to compare data side-by-side by forcing you to select one category of information (i.e. lobbyists, lobbyist organizations, or clients) at a time. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose have lobbying disclosure portals with comparable amounts of information and accessibility — and problems.
Local government policy on lobbying and lobbying disclosure can be heavily impacted by the relationships municipalities have with their states — relationships that we know can be quite complicated. To better understand the influence of state lobbying laws on local lobbying disclosure, there are helpful guides like the National Conference of State Legislatures’ list of state definitions of “lobbying” and “lobbyist” complete with legal citations. FollowtheMoney.org has a report on state lobbying that can help illustrate how state regulations might impact any lobbying data collected at the local level.
Lobbying isn’t a one-way effort, of course. Many local units of government hire lobbyists to represent their interests at the state or federal level. They might do this directly or by being part of an association that serves as a group lobbyist. The Center for Responsive Politics tracks the annual spending by municipalities on federal-level lobbying using information from the Senate Office of Public Records. Some municipalities acknowledge on their websites that they belong to organizations advocating on their behalf: Tulsa, Naperville, and Sandy City are just a few examples.
Lobbying data — whether it’s about those who lobby local government or how local governments lobby others — is already being put to good use. Journalists and other watchdogs use this information to learn about connections between the influence lobby and the shape that government policies take, and quality disclosure of this data can make other datasets, such as zoning or procurement data, more valuable and informative by adding traceable context. Still, we found that only about 50 cities release any kind of lobbying data, with only a few disclosing data about the details of lobbying, such as reports on meetings, gifts, or termination.
The question is what guidance is needed to help municipalities release more of this information, what should be included in the broad category of “lobbying data,” and what’s the best technical way to release it? We’re exploring the best practices related to this data and would love your input.
Photo by Flickr user buddawiggi