“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.
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.
The lobbying reporting forms require the date of the filing, the lobbyist name, address and contact information, and details about communications, gifts, and contributions. Communication is categorized as direct or indirect, with slightly different details required for each. Filers are required to enter information about the lobbying category of the communication, the specific subject matter, the position taken, and the name of the city official and agency for direct communication. For indirect communication, filers must list the lobbying category, the specific subject matter, the position taken, the method of communication, and the description of the recipient group.
Reporting of gifts also requires an impressive level of detail, including the value of the item, the place the item was given, and the name and address of the source of the item.
All of this information, if relevant, is in the PDFs posted on the temporary lobbying disclosure system.
Campaign finance reports — a dataset closely related to lobbying — are made available through the city’s Department of Records. Philadelphia makes it easy to connect the dots of influence between lobbyists and their political contributions by requiring information about any affiliated PACs or candidate political committees — a step other cities could follow to help reveal the narrative of money and influence.
II. What data is missing
Unfortunately, this temporary system only includes lobbying registrations and fourth-quarter expense reports for 2012. Any other expense reports for 2012 have to be obtained by calling the Board of Ethics.
III. How data is made available
Though there’s a list of all the currently registered lobbyists, the data for each of these is only available online as a PDF with the temporary disclosure system. These documents are not machine-readable or searchable. Browsing through the available reports shows some of them are filled out by hand — so there could even be debate about whether all of these forms are easy for humans to read.
IV. Suggested improvements for availability
The city should share its lobbying data in an open, structured format online with its upcoming lobbying disclosure system. Using unique identifiers, releasing information in real-time, and publishing bulk data would all help encourage reuse and analysis of data compared to the current PDFs. Using e-filing in the new system would help make all of these steps easier than transferring the data from paper forms.
V. Other comments
Philadelphia takes positive steps beyond our Guidebook by linking to the city code and Board of Ethics regulation related to lobbying. There is also a Frequently Asked Questions document to help people understand lobbying in the city. Sharing these documents online is a good way to show people the intent for lobbying disclosure that goes beyond the current temporary system.
*There is no direct link to the notice of intent to contract. It can be found by clicking on “Notice of Intent to Contract” in the left sidebar of the eContracts website. From the department dropdown list, choose “Division of Technology” and click search. The notice description says the project is to “design and implement a complete online lobbying system.”
Thanks to Casey Thomas for contributing information to this post
Photo by Flickr user vic15