As part of Sunlight’s Money, Politics and Transparency project, we have been working to raise awareness about the influence of money on governance across the globe. In the process, we have recently discovered some resilient (and successful!) initiatives to help shine a light on the anonymous cash that’s pouring into politics.
Money and its potential for corrupting influence is often viewed as being at the core of political power structures. Disparities in funds can aid candidates in becoming elected officials or even institutionalize majority political parties such that they are synonymous with the government. Given how entrenched monied power structures can be — and the obvious advantage they pose for those who benefit from them — efforts to weaken these disparities can be be long and arduous. However, one of the first steps in diminishing the power money can have in equalizing the interests of all is transparency; when people understand how money is influencing the political system, it loses some of its power.
Lobbying has long been an opaque activity in the political sphere. In fact, fewer than 25 countries worldwide have any legal framework to regulate lobbying. In the last month, another country has joined the ranks to bring transparency to this often shadowy process of policymaking: Ireland. The nation’s Lobbying Regulation Act of 2015 will go into effect next month, and the launch of a mandatory lobbying registry will help inform the public on who is influencing legislators. With access to lobbying data, journalists and civil society can begin to mine through this information to connect the dots and even create tools to engage citizens, like the tool TI Slovenia just launched after having passed lobbying regulations just a few years ago.
We’ve also observed strides toward better political finance disclosure that are also approaching the finish line. In light of a recent scandal in Chile, the government is proposing amendments to political financing regulations and civil society groups. The amendments could include a lowered threshold on donor disclosure, and public interest organizations, such as Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente, are gallantly pushing to ensure the timely and complete disclosure of this information. In South Africa, a country with a traditionally thin political finance framework, the advocacy group MyVoteCounts has launched a campaign to make it mandatory for parties to disclose where their money is coming from. MyVoteCounts is awaiting a court judgment that will rule on whether donor disclosure is relevant in helping inform voters and, at Sunlight, we are optimistic that the court will rule in their favor.
Democratizing information is an important step in confronting power structures and lowering the barrier to citizen participation. Although there is still much work to do, it’s inspiring to see powerful initiatives acknowledging this approach — and even getting elected officials to take notice.