Asking for top-level changes to help boost local financial transparency

Tunnel of data and numbers

Sunlight’s local work has long kept an eye on the overlap of municipalities with other layers of government. One of the first areas we explored was how the federal government can, in some cases, adopt policies that lead to more openness about municipal-level information. We wrote a letter to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB) supporting a proposed rule change that was eventually approved and is helping give voters more information about influence around municipal bonds. It was a clear case of how a federal body can make changes that impact a wide swath of local transparency. It was also a case where we noted how more improvements can still be made.

Now, we’re writing to MSRB again. We’ve continued to examine the role the Board plays in collecting and sharing local financial data, and we think there are some promising opportunities. After consulting with experts around the country, we realized there is a clear path forward for the information that is already collected as part of continuing disclosures to be shared as open data. Researchers and experts across the country are already working on creating a taxonomy that would allow the information, currently trapped in PDFs that can be hundreds of pages long, to be collected and shared in a structured, machine-processable format. By making it easier for anyone to search for, access and reuse the numbers from audited municipal financial reports, MSRB would be upholding its emphasis on transparency. These kinds of improvements would be in line with goals in the Board’s Long-Range Plan for Market Transparency Products, too.

Specifically, we recommended that MSRB explore ways for audited financial information from municipalities to be electronically filed. While the narrative included in the PDF version of these filings is important, too, allowing for e-filing of the numbers included in the reports would bring a whole new level of accessibility to this fundamental information. It will take the development of a taxonomy to empower this e-filing in the first place, though. That’s why we commend the experts already working on such a solution, and we look forward to seeing the results of their efforts. We hope MSRB will work with the community of municipal finance experts to speed the process of making municipal financial information automated, digitized, and more broadly beneficial.

In the meantime, there are other improvements that could be made in how MSRB shares municipal financial information. In our letter, we recommend bulk download of continuing disclosures by state to allow for easier access to the large amount of information contained in MSRB’s Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) system, where reports and data are shared.

The search functions in EMMA should be improved, too. In exploring the website and trying to find information about municipal finances, we found the current search function often times out or poses other challenges to easy searching.

These proposed changes come in addition to others we’ve recommended in the past. We’re still hopeful the Board will look into adopting reforms such as the use of non-proprietary unique identifiers for tracking those entities involved in the bond process.

Those who have signed on to our open letter to MSRB represent a range of experts working hard to advocate for these kinds of advances. They have the research and experience to show how these changes to the collection and sharing of municipal financial information are not only possible, but also a set a course for efficiencies and better management of the whole process.

We hope to see these improvements considered as a continuation of the steps MSRB has already taken toward increased transparency.

Read more in our letter to the MSRB:

Updating MSRB information collection and sharing: taking steps toward transparency