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Tag Archive: local lobbying

The Impact of Opening up Lobbying Data

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We found a varied landscape when we explored what cities include in releases of lobbying data and how they release it, but one thing is clear: Disclosing and contextualizing lobbying data can have a high impact on a community. Journalists and other watchdogs who dig into municipal lobbying information have unearthed a wide range of stories illustrating the relationships between money, access to power, and the decisions made by those who have power. Raw lobbying information alone doesn't necessarily make for an insightful story about the world of political influence, but it's a key data set that is essential to revealing these kinds of narratives.

This is especially clear in Philadelphia, where information from the city's lobbying registrations and quarterly reports have been pulled into a searchable, sortable database called Lobbying.ph. Casey Thomas, a Philadelphia developer, was part of the team that created Lobbying.ph at a local hackathon in February 2012, and he expanded on it before joining AxisPhilly, a non-profit news organization, later that year. AxisPhilly now houses and maintains the project.

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Evaluating Municipal Lobbying Data: Philadelphia

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Philadelphia-sculpture

“Consistent” is not the first word one would use to describe the landscape of lobbying data released by municipalities. As revealed by our research, the formats and range of information local governments collect and disclose about lobbying activity varies quite a bit from one community context to another. After exploring the best practices for collecting and releasing this information, we created and recently published a Municipal Lobbying Data Guidebook. This guide addresses not only what kinds of information should be included in an ideal lobbying dataset, but also information about how that data should be collected and shared, regulated, and examples of the impact of having this information made available in an open way. (Something we’ll continue to explore in future posts.)

So how do municipalities measure up to these standards? We took a close look at three cities -- Austin, Chicago, and Philadelphia -- to explore what they’re doing well and where their lobbying disclosure can improve.

We've already covered Austin and Chicago. Now we turn to look at Philadelphia, which is a unique case in this set of cities.

WHAT COULD (AND WAS SUPPOSED TO) BE

Philadelphia's online lobbying disclosures were never supposed to look like they do now. When the lobbying disclosure law passed in 2010, the city contracted for software that would utilize electronic filing and share the information in a searchable format -- a requirement under the new law. The city had to cancel that contract, though, when the vendor failed to produce working software for the lobbying portal.

The city's current lobbying disclosure website is a temporary solution. Philadelphia recently put out a notice of intent to contract* for a new website with Acclaim Systems Inc -- the same company working on the state of Pennsylvania's lobbying disclosure system. The RFP for Philadelphia's new website includes a call for the use of unique ID numbers for filers; a way to publish registrations and expense reports "as PDFs and as data to the public searchable site"; user ability to search and download registration and expense reports "easily via the Internet" and to generate PDFs for each of these; and to create an online directory of lobbyists with photos.

The goal is essentially to have Philadelphia's website meet the two stipulations called for in the lobbying disclosure law: e-filing and searchability. The RFP calls for a system "that can be designed and implemented in a four-month timeframe or less," so if the contract receives final approval soon the site could be up this year.

Having some information available in the meantime is better than having none at all. We evaluate the current website with this in mind and with an eye toward how the next iteration of the website that comes after this placeholder might look.

WHAT EXISTS NOW

I. What data is available

Philadelphia links to its lobbying information from a webpage on its Board of Ethics site. It makes registration and reporting forms and instructions available. It also posts some completed lobbying registrations and expense reports.

The lobbying registration forms require the date of registration, the lobbyist name, address, and contact information, details about any affiliated political action committees or candidate political committees, and the name, address, and contact information for any principals or lobbying firms. This level of detail is in line with Sunlight’s Guidebook recommendations.

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Evaluating Municipal Lobbying Data: Chicago

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Chicago-skyline

“Consistent” is not the first word one would use to describe the landscape of lobbying data released by municipalities. As revealed by our research, the formats and range of information local governments collect and disclose about lobbying activity varies quite a bit from one community context to another. After exploring the best practices for collecting and releasing this information, we created and recently published a Municipal Lobbying Data Guidebook. This guide addresses not only what kinds of information should be included in an ideal lobbying dataset, but also information about how that data should be collected and shared, regulated, and examples of the impact of having this information made available in an open way. (Something we’ll continue to explore in future posts.)

So how do municipalities measure up to these standards? We took a close look at three cities -- Austin, Chicago, and Philadelphia -- to explore what they’re doing well and where their lobbying disclosure can improve.

Last week we covered Austin. Now we turn to Chicago.

I. What data is available

Chicago has two hubs for its information related to lobbying: One is on the Board of Ethics website, and the other is in its data portal, though you can also find these records in the reports section of the Electronic Lobbyist Filing System, which links to a search function and back to the data portal. As we noted when we surveyed the landscape of municipal lobbying data, Chicago appears to release some of the most detailed lobbyist data among U.S. cities. The city's data portal contains information about registered lobbyists, activity, compensation, gifts, expenditures, and termination. Many cities don't collect this much detailed information, let alone post it online.

This data includes many of the form fields mentioned in our Guidebook and some further levels of detail. Registration and termination forms for 2013 include lobbyist names, addresses, and contact information; the filing date and termination date, if relevant; and client information including their address, contact information and industry.

Activity reports include the name of the agency contacted by the lobbyist along with the client being represented and the topic of the action requested. The reports also show how many administrative or legislative actions were requested.

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Evaluating Municipal Lobbying Data: Austin

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Austin-Texas

“Consistent” is not the first word one would use to describe the landscape of lobbying data released by municipalities. As revealed by our research, the formats and range of information local governments collect and disclose about lobbying activity varies quite a bit from one community context to another. After exploring the best practices for collecting and releasing this information, we created and recently published a Municipal Lobbying Data Guidebook. This guide addresses not only what kinds of information should be included in an ideal lobbying dataset but also information about how that data should be collected, shared, regulated, and examples of the impact of having this information made available in an open way (something we’ll continue to explore in future posts).

So how do municipalities measure up to these standards? We’re taking a close look at three cities -- Austin, Chicago, and Philadelphia -- to explore what they’re doing well and where their lobbying disclosure can improve. Today, we turn to Austin.

I. What data is available

Austin's City Clerk oversees lobbying activity and reporting, sharing some related information with the public in an online portal page. The page includes downloadable template forms for lobbying registration, termination and quarterly activity. The city also posts online lists of registered lobbyists and their clients, along with address information and the nature of business for certain clients.

Downloading any of the template forms shows Austin requires several of the form fields recommended in by our Municipal Lobbying Data Guidebook. The registration form requires information about the lobbyist and their clients. The activity form requires information about the lobbyist and a breakdown of expenditures. (Any expenses less than $100 each can be aggregated.) Campaign finance reports are also linked to from the lobbying portal page. These reports require the name of the contributor, the amount contributed, and the date of the transaction.

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