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Earlier this month, AxisPhilly launched a new feature called Site Watch, where we review public information web sites and seek to answer some of important questions: Is the site easy to use? Does it offer information in a digestible format? Are the data complete? Then we give the site a letter grade on a scale of A to F.
We first evaluated the Pennsylvania Department of State’s campaign finance site. This week we look at its counterpart in Philadelphia: the city’s campaign finance site.
This site includes local candidates such as mayor city council members and district attorney, and certain statewide candidates such as governor, state representative and senator. Like the state site, the city site is supposed to give a clearer idea of how money is spent in elections. While it definitely beats the state site in that regard, the city site is far from perfect.
For starters, getting to the host site is a bit tricky. A Google search for ‘Philadelphia campaign finance site,’ seems to be the quickest way to the site. Otherwise you’re left navigating through the Department of Records dense homepage.
The site gives you the option of searching by candidate or contributor. Usually entering the last name of the person you are searching for turns up the right results. For example, typing in the last name ‘Blackwell’ under candidate gives you the name of every contributor, including Political Action Committees, that have donated to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell since 2006. But this is where the flaws begin. You can’t sort the results by date, amount or contributor, which leaves you with a smorgasbord of information that isn’t easy to navigate. You also can’t click on an individual contributor to see whom else they’ve given to or click on a PAC to find out more about who they are and who they represent. But kudos to the site for providing the address of each contributor: having access to contributors’ addresses allowed AxisPhilly to track the geographical flow of campaign money in Philadelphia.
The above assumes a certain level of web savvy and familiarity with the site. But as Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy, points out the site isn’t geared to the average person.
“Committee of 70 has raised the point over and over again that a campaign finance regulation system is only as good as the access people have to the reports,” Kaplan said. “If it’s hard to look up the information and so frustrating to the point where people give up or rely on some reporter to find the information on their behalf then something is wrong.”
Given that Philadelphia is the biggest city in Pennsylvania it should have one of the best, if not the best, campaign finance sites, Kaplan said, noting other places that have done it better like Pittsburgh’s Openbook and New York’s Board of Elections site.
While Philadelphia’s site is filled with ‘How Tos,’ aimed at helping you through the process, they prove to be more of a distraction than helpful. After all, who wants to continuously be reading instructions about how to get seemingly straightforward information?
The PDF search option is almost as useless as the ‘How To’ instructions. It allows you to search for reports in PDF format by year, but you must also chose a reporting cycle – there are as many as seven in any given election year.
“The normal person is not going to want to know difference between first cycle and third cycle,” Kaplan said.
Even once you chose a cycle you are left with a long list of contributors, most of which you won’t recognize.
In December 2009, the Committee of Seventy submitted a report to the mayor’s Task Force on Campaign Finance and Ethics Reform. One recommendation was for the city to come up with a “campaign finance database that’s modern, that’s easy to use, that’s in line with the latest technology and easily searchable,” Kaplan said. Four years later “there’s been no changes.”
We give this site a C given there is a lot of good information provided over a period of several years. You can see exact dates and contribution amounts by contributor and candidate. Providing complete addresses, including street names, gives a better idea of exactly where contributions are coming from. But the site isn’t laid out in a manner that benefits the average citizen, one of the most important criteria to us.
Do you have a site you want AxisPhilly to review? Let us know at Julia@axisphilly.org