Questions about the basic integrity of government officials can be difficult to answer with any one kind of disclosure. While disclosing information about campaign finance and lobbying are crucial steps toward answering these kinds of questions, asset disclosures help complete the picture by allowing for public oversight of basic conflicts of interest and empowering the prevention of corruption. Asset disclosures, defined broadly, include information about the financial stakes of elected or appointed officials that could impact their decision making. This data complements information about campaign finance, lobbying, legislation, rulemaking, procurement, and more to show how money might be influencing decisions made by those in government. As part of our ongoing exploration of local open data, we decided to shine a light on how this important dataset is currently shared and what steps could be taken to improve it.
WHAT IS ASSET DISCLOSURE?
Asset disclosure rules generally apply to top-level officials who have decision-making power in government. The disclosures gather information about a person’s finances or things they own. This can include information about business investments, any prior and current business relationships, real estate interests, and personal income (including gifts and travel or speaking payments). Whether decisions are being made about legislation, regulations, procurement, or something else that could be impacted by personal assets, it’s important to know the context that could impact those choices.
Asset disclosure goes by many names at the local level. It might be referred to as financial disclosure, conflict of interest statements, ethics statements, financial statements, statements of economic interest, or ethics disclosure. Regardless of the name it goes by, this set of information can be found in many municipalities but shared in many different levels of completeness and openness — often leaning toward low disclosure shared in formats that are not open.
The completeness of this data depends in part on the rules municipalities have around its disclosure. There might be different regulations about who has to disclose, what they have to disclose, how they disclose, and how often they disclose. The answers to these questions, though, should all be guided by the goal of having the most complete, timely information possible available to the public online in open formats.
How this information should be disclosed, and how often, are questions that can be guided by some of the best practices of open data releases. This information should be published online as open, structured data. This means the data should be machine-readable so it can be searched, sorted, downloaded, analyzed and reused. Requiring electronic-filing (also known as e-filing) would help empower publishing the information online in an open format. E-filing would also support real-time release of the information, meaning the public can track any changing connections or interests that might be happening before important votes and decisions. Allowing bulk download of this data would create an opportunity for deeper analysis of these disclosures over time and across individual filings.
Few municipalities implement these best practices in releasing asset disclosures, however. With a few exceptions that seem to stem from state regulations, most municipalities are missing out on the opportunity to shine a light on this important piece of the bigger puzzle.
BASIC ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF ACTIVITY
Some municipalities merely acknowledge the collection of information about assets without sharing any of the data collected. Minneapolis, MN, for instance, shares blank disclosure forms in PDF format. Completed reports do not appear to be available online. Other cities, like Palm Bay, FL, point to state websites where forms for local officials can be downloaded and completed. Once again, however, the filed information doesn’t seem to be shared online.
In some cases, completed forms are available to the public only in person. New York City collects statements of economic interest and notes the public can ask for access with a written request, then come pick up copies of reports at a government office. For a city that requires its more than 8,000 employees to file reports on their financial interests, sharing these reports online in searchable, sortable, and downloadable formats would be a leap forward in providing greater transparency. It’s a similar scenario in Philadelphia, which requires e-filing of financial disclosures. The information from those forms is nowhere to be found online. The city’s Board of Ethics website notes that even though the forms are e-filed, “information in the electronic reporting database is not available to be accessed electronically by the public.”
MINIMAL PROACTIVE DISCLOSURE
Other cities are at least putting some of the completed asset disclosures online for public viewing. Houston, TX; Milwaukee, WI; Baltimore County, MD; and Phoenix are just a few of several municipalities that share asset disclosures as PDFs. As with campaign finance data, the searchability of these PDFs varies from city to city (and sometimes even within one city’s dataset). While some PDFs have fully searchable text, others have some or all of the text locked up in non-searchable images. Sharing PDFs is better than not posting any disclosures online, but sharing the information in open formats would open up new functionalities for analysis and reuse of the data.
E-filing is one way to accomplish this: in Colorado Springs, CO, asset disclosures filed before 2012 are not fully searchable. The city started requiring e-filing though, making all of the PDF disclosures from 2013 fully searchable. E-filed data can help do more than make PDFs fully searchable: it can also feed into a searchable, sortable database to be even more user friendly.
This is something that remains to be realized in most places. In California, for example, municipal asset disclosures are all submitted through the Form 700, provided by the state-level Fair Political Practices Commission. The form captures detailed information about asset disclosures from local officials. The state’s website allows for some searches and for browsing the filed forms, but the forms are shared as PDFs. With a form that standardizes asset disclosure information across all of California’s municipalities, moving to an open format for sharing the data would empower analysis across local governments around the state.
The value of open formats is evident in those cities that allow for searching through and sorting asset disclosures, downloading the information, and more. Atlanta, for instance, allows for searches of data by year, date ranges, or specific agencies and departments. The search results are displayed in static tables on web pages, and further details for individual filings can be viewed as HTML pages. Search results can be exported in CSV format, too.
Winnebago County, IL, has a portal that allows for searches by similar criteria as Atlanta. Results are returned in a sortable table and individual reports can be viewed as HTML pages. Results can also be downloaded in CSV format. These kinds of searching, sorting, and downloading capabilities empowered by open data help users more easily find what they’re looking for, make comparisons, and analyze specific ranges of (or all) information.
Examining the current landscape of local asset disclosures reveals where work remains to be done in shining a light on the forces influencing politics. The low disclosure around this important dataset on the local level leaves many connections that could influence government decisions in the dark.
There are resources emphasizing the importance of this information on the local level, some of which we’ve gathered in our research. There are few resources, however, that address best practices around how this data should be shared to help empower crucial analysis of the contexts that could impact political choices. In upcoming blog posts, we’ll take a look at the kinds of stories this data can empower when it’s opened up and share recommendations for how it can be opened. We would love your input as we continue to look at these issues.