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site watch2_D‘Transparency’ is the vogue word in government today.  It offers the promise that citizens can use the web to get access to the warehouses of information government possesses.

It’s one thing to make that material available, something else entirely to make it available in an easily accessible way. A web site with information that is hard to navigate, cumbersome to use, with incomplete data isn’t serving any useful public purpose.

At AxisPhilly, we believe in making data open to the public not only in theory but also in fact, which is why we are starting a new feature called Site Watch.

Site Watch will review public information web sites and seek to answer some of these important questions: Is the site easy to use? Does it offer information in a digestible format? Are the data complete? Then we’ll give the site a letter grade on a scale of A to F.

This first Site Watch evaluates the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Campaign Finance disclosure site.

This site contains information on all candidates for state offices, a list that includes governor, all state legislators and most judges.  In includes detailed information, culled from their campaign finance reports, on contributions, expenses and debt. It is supposed to serve as a window into campaign spending for citizens who want to follow the money.

Unlike the federal government, Pennsylvania sets few limits on how campaign money is raised and spent, so public disclosure – at regular intervals before and after an election – is important.

Unfortunately, this site does not deliver the goods.  It is devilishly hard to navigate, with information organized in a thoroughly confusing way. Also, the information in the reports is not always timely or complete.

Ironically, this site is supposed to be a new and improved version of an earlier  counterpart, which was clunky but worked reasonably well.

“We’ve been constantly trying to work on the system to make it easier to use and more functional,” said Matthew Keeler, deputy press secretary of the Department of State.

They should go back to the drawing board.

As veteran Harrisburg reporter John Baer of the Daily News put it, “if you’re an average citizen and you go on that website you’re going to be there for a very long time. It’s not quite health.gov, but it’s close.”

If you go to the site, you will be given the option of using a basic or advanced search. The basic search allows you to just type in a candidate’s name. You would think it would make searching simple, but it doesn’t.

Instead of displaying reports filed just by that candidate, it brings up every instance where a candidate’s name was mentioned in any report filed with the bureau. The list can run into the hundreds.

Our advice is to skip the basic search and go directly to the advanced search option.  There, you can filter your query to include not just the candidate’s name, but also the office they are seeking, their party, the election year and report cycle. Typing in a candidate’s last name and using the right filters usually turns up the right results.

Candidates are far easier to find than Political Action Committees, the campaign funds set up by special interests. The site makes it very difficult to identify PACs and, more importantly, to whom they donated.

You may stumble across the name of a PAC, but then you have to go to a whole other section of the site to find out which group they represent and who they give money to. And forget trying to search individually for a PAC, even if you know the PAC’s name. You practically need a Ph.D to do that.

The actual campaign finance reports themselves are a whole other story.

FYI: Be sure to enable pop-ups in order to view reports in PDF format. Otherwise, the information will come up in a text format with a blizzard of commas and quotation marks that make it a headache to read.

For starters, reports are sometimes missing, even at times when they should be part of the public record. Case in point: not all pre-election reports turned in by Philadelphia judicial candidates in the Nov. 6 election were available to be viewed before Election Day. Two of the seven winning candidates had no viewable reports; two others had three reports; one jurist had one report; another had four viewable reports.

Unlike many other jurisdiction, the state of Pennsylvania does not require candidates to file their reports electronically.  They are allowed to use paper reports, which then must be handed off to a contractor who inputs them.  It is a process that obviously delays timely posting of reports on the web site.

The bottom line is that if the average citizen will have to spend a lot of time wrestling with this site to get useful information.

“For people who don’t use it on regular basis there is that question of where to click, where to find something,” admitted Keeler.

We give this site a D due to the incompleteness of data, difficulty in accessing the information needed, and the fact that it is so hard to use.

 

Do you have a site you want AxisPhilly to review? Let us know at Julia@axisphilly.org