A case of incomplete reforms leaving improved disclosures locked up

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a stack of paper
Photo credit: Judy van der Velden/Flickr

Recent events have us thinking more about city finances and how that data is made available. At the PDF Liberation Hackathon, we were reminded of how many municipalities still publish budget data in PDFs. Sharing information in this way means it is difficult to search for, extract and analyze the numbers, which is exactly what many people want to do with budget data.

Government finances are a crucial dataset. Every taxpayer wants to know how their money is being put to use. It’s the starting point for answering a wide variety of questions about how government functions, including understanding what groups might be influencing budget decisions.

There are many different ways for interest groups to influence government decisions around finances, of course. Last year we submitted comments in favor of requiring more disclosure around one avenue of influence: the municipal bond market. We supported a proposed rule change by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) that would require more information about who is trying to influence bond ballot issues. The rule aimed to improve transparency around potential “pay-to-play” practices.

The good news is that the proposed rule change was approved and has been implemented. Anyone can look up more detailed political contributions now through the Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) system. MSRB even notes why collection of and access to this information is important, citing the need for transparency and preventing conflicts of interest.

It quickly becomes apparent in looking through the political contributions information that there are still significant problems, however. The data, like so much information about municipal finances, is locked up in PDFs.┬áThat means for researchers and others who want to analyze the information, they would have to go through page by page for each report to find the numbers, extract them, then finally start comparisons.┬áThat’s why, in our comments supporting the improved disclosures, we also urged MSRB to share the data in an open format. MSRB acknowledged our comment with this response: “In response, the MSRB stated that none of these requests were the subject of the proposed rule change but that the MSRB will keep these requests under advisement as it considers future enhancements to its political contribution transparency initiatives.”

This could be mistaken for a polite dismissal of our suggestion, but it’s actually an encouraging response. MSRB has already made it clear it has open data goals in mind by including them in its Long-Range Plan for Market Transparency Products.

In the meantime, it’s frustrating to see that more information is being made available but is still difficult to access and use. The impact of improved disclosure is diminished when the information being shared is still in a format that makes it difficult to search, sort, and compare. Moving to open formats would help remove barriers to analysis of the information being disclosed. Ultimately, disclosure is incomplete if the information is not accessible and usable, if it can’t be used to empower the kinds of oversight it is meant to inform. Any kind of disclosure should be aimed at maximizing openness and usefulness, too.

For those federal agencies like MSRB that have a role in determining how information related to municipalities is shared, they have an opportunity to serve as levers in ensuring the openness, and usefulness, of information about local governments across the country. This is something that’s already been suggested for data about municipal finances, and we’re interested in learning more about how federal rulemaking might be able to help open up data about municipalities.

We’re continuing to explore the topic, and we plan to share more with you soon. Stay tuned.