Regulating Money in Politics a Global Shortcoming

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Open government advocates around the world (including Sunlight) are thrilled to see how more and more governments commit themselves to openness. Unfortunately, a vital piece of the transparency agenda–party and campaign funding–remain depressingly opaque. Because the financing behind how candidates and parties come to power influence later policy and spending decisions, it is critical that countries address political finance transparency. Sunlight is committed to create a strong base for reform by combining our efforts with other activists and sharing our expertise in a meaningful way.

Political finance opacity throughout the world 

Recent scandals around illegal party funding practices in Spain or the turmoil in Brazil have again highlighted the irony, controversy and – pardon our language – obvious hypocrisy behind the new tide of government transparency. The fact that decision-makers still don’t seem to associate party and campaign funding transparency with government openness is utterly depressing, though not at all surprising.

It is no use arguing against the fact that future politicians do need some sort of funding to be able to run for public office and political parties cannot operate without financial resources. But trying to convince decision-makers that voters, watchdog organizations, journalists and (oh yes!) oversight bodies must have easy and timely access to granular information about party and election funding seems equally challenging to explaining the advantages of not watching television to a 6-year old.

As a result, political financing has been repeatedly rated as the “weakest component of countries’ anti-corruption framework” since international organizations and institutions (such as Transparency International, Global Integrity, IDEA or GRECO, the European anti-corruption monitoring body) began tracking the performance of national public integrity systems. If you want to get goosebumps (no, not the nice ones), take a look at our map that visualizes the political finance transparency scores of 31 countries from Global Integrity’s extensive research on anti-corruption mechanisms and the integrity of national institutions. For more details or similarly disappointing country scores from previous years see GI’s full research. Our visualization is based on GI’s scores on political finance transparency and does not cover the whole set of indicators.

Global Integrity Scorecards on Political Finance Transparency, 2011 (Covering 31 countries)

Party and Campaign Funding Trends

And Global Integrity is not the only strict critic here. According to an analysis based on the most recently updated IDEA database that catalogues political finance laws from around the world, only “53% of the countries require reporting from both parties and candidates” and in more than 25% of the states that do so, “there is no requirement for this information to be made available to the public”. And in the age of rapid technological development, online reporting is not on the radar of even the most progressive countries. But when it comes to the level of citizen’s trust in reporting and oversight mechanisms, aka practice, that’s when the picture gets the worst.

Transparency Intrernational research on the National Integrity Systems (NIS) of 25 European countries demonstrates how political parties in even European countries “suffer from the lowest levels of integrity registered among all national institutions and sectors. Such high levels of perceived corruption can be linked to the increasingly negative influence that unregulated party and campaign financing have had on countries’ political processes and decisions.” In other words, regardless of how simple or sophisticated their political financing regulations are, countries around the world are equally failing to effectively regulate undue influence in decision-making and while being quite apt at priding themselves on every single dataset they release, looks like politicians do not consider political funding as ripe for reform. How can we tell?

Hardly Any OGP Commitments Around Party and Election Funding 

We had a look at the OGP commitments and out of the 48 countries with delivered commitments to the Open Government Partnership, only 6 (!) had a hint at regulating the flow of money into politics. This does not necessarily mean that other non-OGP states cannot undergo important changes but the trend is obvious. And honestly there’s no reason to believe that countries without working freedom of information legislation or a strong culture of accountability would be eager to introduce radical transparency laws.

If we put aside our inherent skepticism for a second we might also assume that some of the national action plans at the OGP simply forget to mention ongoing reform initiatives around political finance transparency. However there’s enough evidence to believe that besides Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Latvia, the Netherlands and the Ukraine, no other national governments have anything to say (or do) about their more or less broken party and election funding systems.

High Time for Reform

Is there a way out? It will definitely be a painfully slow process leading our politicians out of the trap of systematic corruption which is in many cases essential for their survival. Still, we believe that the rising tide of government transparency creates an important opportunity to push for better disclosure norms and laws in political funding. The financial crisis already evoked a never-before-seen level of citizen outrage and demand for more transparency generally. With proactive disclosure of public interest information becoming a default, why should party and campaign funding be an exception? The rapid development and increased use of technology can create global momentum for political finance transparency reforms in a way that has been impossible before, and yes, this is indeed the perfect time to start pushing together for better systems.

In the upcoming months, we want to map the social, political and technological landscape of political finance transparency around the world, with a special focus on disclosure trends. Sunlight is planning to collect and blog more about the best practices on technology-based monitoring tools and we also have a handful of good examples on how to use technology and crowd sourcing methods in environments where access to data is very limited. Ultimately we want to combine our efforts with other activists and advocates throughout the world, and help shape the way the public accesses information about how elections are paid for and how parties are financed. Stay tuned for our upcoming posts!

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