Over the past few months the British Columbia government (my home province – or for my American friends – state) has had a taskforce looking at reforming local (municipal) election rules.
During the process I submitted a suggestion to the taskforce outlining why campaign finance data should be made available online and in machine readable format (ie. so you can open it in Microsoft Excel, or Google Docs, for example).
Yesterday the taskforce published their conclusions and… they kind of got it right.
At first blush, things look great… The press release and taskforce homepage list, as one of the core recommendations:
Establish a central role for Elections BC in enforcement of campaign finance rules and in making campaign finance disclosure statements electronically accessible
Looks promising… yes? Right. But note the actual report (which ironically, is only available in PDF, so I can’t link to the specific recommendations… sigh). The recommendation around disclosure reads:
Require campaign finance disclosure information to be published online
and made centrally accessible though Elections BC
and the explanatory text reads:
Many submissions suggested that 120 days is too long to wait for disclosure reports, and that the public should be able to access disclosure information sooner and more easily. Given the Task Force’s related recommendations on Elections BC’s role in overseeing local campaign finance rules, it is suggested that Elections BC act as a central repository of campaign finance disclosure statements. Standardizing disclosure statement forms is of practical importance if the statements are to be published online and centrally available, and would help members of the public, media and academia analyze the information. [my italics]
My take? That the spirit of the recommendation is for campaign finance data be machine readable – that you should be able to download, open, and play with it on your own computer. However, the literally reading of this text suggests that simple scanning account ledgers and sharing them as an image file or unstructured pdf might suffice.
This would be essentially doing the same thing that generally happens presently and so would not mark a step forward. Another equally bad outcome? That the information gets shared in a manner similar to the way federal MP campaign data is shared on Elections Canada website where it cannot be easily downloaded and you are only allowed to look at one candidates financial data at a time. (Elections Canada site is almost designed to prevent you from effectively analyzing campaign finance data).
So in short, the Taskforce members are to be congratulated as I think their intentions were bang on: they want the public to be able to access and analyze campaign finance data. But we will need to continue to monitor this issue carefully as the language is vague enough that the recommendation may not produce the desired outcome.