Evaluating Municipal Lobbying Data: Chicago

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“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.

Last week we covered Austin. Now we turn to Chicago.

I. What data is available

Chicago has two hubs for its information related to lobbying: One is on the Board of Ethics website, and the other is in its data portal, though you can also find these records in the reports section of the Electronic Lobbyist Filing System, which links to a search function and back to the data portal. As we noted when we surveyed the landscape of municipal lobbying data, Chicago appears to release some of the most detailed lobbyist data among U.S. cities. The city’s data portal contains information about registered lobbyists, activity, compensation, gifts, expenditures, and termination. Many cities don’t collect this much detailed information, let alone post it online.

This data includes many of the form fields mentioned in our Guidebook and some further levels of detail. Registration and termination forms for 2013 include lobbyist names, addresses, and contact information; the filing date and termination date, if relevant; and client information including their address, contact information and industry.

Activity reports include the name of the agency contacted by the lobbyist along with the client being represented and the topic of the action requested. The reports also show how many administrative or legislative actions were requested.

II. What data is missing

While the city’s registration disclosures for 2013 provide several layers of detail beyond what the Guidebook recommends, the city misses a few form fields in its activity reports that could shine more light on lobbying. The activity reports don’t require information about the name of the official contacted by the lobbyist or the date of contact. A category for “filing period” is the closest information to a date of contact that’s available. Finally, while the activity reports do list an “action sought” field, they typically don’t indicate whether a lobbyist was in favor of or opposed to that action and there are not corresponding bill numbers available. Sometimes “action sought” is phrased as vaguely as “zoning” or “administrative,” and these don’t help the public understand the actual lobbying activity that occurred.

There appears to be a lag in the posting of this information, too: While there are activity reports for 2011, these reports do not seem to be available for 2012 or 2013. The registration forms for 2013 require information about which city department a particular lobbyist lobbied, but still lack the kind of detail that would add meaningful context.

Additionally, Chicago does not release campaign finance report data, but as they note on their website this is because the data is collected by the Illinois State Board of Ethics, which they link to from the same site. Nonetheless, Chicago does make note of its campaign finance regulations.

III. How data is made available

The city’s data is searchable, sortable, and downloadable from their Socrata data portal and made available in several open formats. This data and its upkeep are made easier in part because Chicago has an electronic filing system that lets lobbyists register and file other forms online. To this end, Chicago is a good example of how e-filing can help lead to better public data releases.

The city also added unique identifiers for lobbyists to the 2013 registration forms, which could make it easier to track lobbyists across datasets if the identifiers continue to be required form fields on various filings.

IV. Suggested improvements for availability

Chicago hints that it is working to release information in real time, noting on its 2013 lobbyist registry that “From this point forward, the Board of Ethics will electronically compile more data about lobbyists and their activities and automatically report this information online.” How this will be fully implemented remains to be seen, but it’s a step that would smartly harness technology to further empower public tracking of who is trying to influence government.

V. Other comments

Going beyond the Guidebook recommendations, Chicago has released data on compensation, expenditures, and gifts in a fair amount of detail. Want to know which lobbyist gifted brownies to a city agency? There’s data for that — at least from 2010 and 2011. We hope to see these kinds of detailed disclosures continue to be posted and in a more timely manner.

Chicago also has plenty of supporting documentation for its lobbying regulations. The city has a page dedicated to explaining lobbyist filing requirements, and the lobbying portal makes note of which city ordinance oversees lobbying (though this could use a link to the downloadable ordinance the city makes available).

Thanks to Derek Eder for contributing information to this post

Photo by Flickr user Tom C

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