Political finance transparency: tools and impact

Transparent political finance systems reinforce a level electoral playing field and reduce the risk of corruption and undue influence – but monitoring donations, state subsidies and how parties and candidates spend their money can raise considerable challenges. To identify good practices and innovative approaches to opening up data on money in politics, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative Institute convened a peer dialogue on April 15. Speakers examined how oversight institutions, civil society organization (CSOs), international organizations and academics are tackling this issue in Eastern Partnership and Western Balkan countries.

Using Tools to Broaden Access to Political Party and Campaign Finance Data

Stakeholders use a diverse array of tools to increase transparency around party and campaign finance. Civil society organizations may develop open databases like Banii partidelor politice din România, or Money of Political Parties in Romania, which scrapes and cleans data from multiple government sources and access to information requests to build a robust picture of political money flows. Oversight institutions like the National Agency on Corruption Prevention in Ukraine may focus more on building a platform like the POLITDATA Register – a reporting tool for political parties that funnels their data into an open portal to support public understanding of their funding’s origins and how it is used. For organizations trying to track spending on and the content of online ads like those posted to social media, tools might look like the New York Ad Observatory’s data pipeline, which pools data on what is, as yet, a little regulated realm of political spending.

Regardless of each stakeholder’s mandate and goals, similar recommendations and lessons emerged among dialogue speakers on how to produce stronger transparency tools:

  • Build on lessons learned from existing tools. Consult fellow oversight institutions, think tanks, CSOs and other stakeholders on challenges and lessons.
  • Build a cross-disciplinary team to oversee tool development. Consider including legal experts, software engineers and graphic designers – but also assess opportunities for cross-sectoral engagement with government, CSO, media and academic representatives. They may offer unique insights – and have access to different funding sources – to support design.
  • Familiarize yourself with existing privacy legislation in your jurisdiction. It will determine what data can be made public.
  • Invest in your tool’s sustainability by budgeting for the long term. Consider what resources you will require for testing, refinement trainings, orientations, regular maintenance, updates and the labor for keeping your data and analysis up to date.
  • The need for new transparency tools often results from outdated disclosure and reporting practices. Commit to open data principles and publish your data in open formats to support other stakeholders’ research and analysis.
  • Identify your tool’s likely audience early in planning and incorporate end-user ideas and guidance on how they will search and interact with your datasets into all phases of design.
  • Provide other stakeholders with the support they need to engage with your tool. Hold trainings, workshops or orientations on how to use it, and invest in stand-alone materials like user manuals and video tutorials.

Maximizing the Impact of Political Finance Data

Dialogue speakers also offered insights on how political finance data shared through transparency tools can be made more user-friendly and how it can feed into anti-corruption programming. Representatives from the Center for Responsive PoliticsTransparency International and Open Government Partnership reinforced recommendations outlined above and offered additional takeaways:

  • Find ways to visualize your data. Graphs and charts can make complex data sets more digestible for your audience than a list of raw numbers.
  • Supply context. Raw numbers may be hard to understand without points of comparison or definitions of technical terms.
  • Connect data points to a narrative. Integrating your numbers and analysis into news stories, analysis or other public-facing resources can help reinforce your message.
  • Political finance impacts who is elected to office and makes decisions about use of state resources. Understanding connections between party and campaign funding and government allotment of resources can help identify risks for or instances of corruption. Find ways to make your data tools interoperable with other databases that capture information on political and administrative processes – like public procurement or lobbying.
  • Enhancing transparency is a critical step – but stakeholders also need to think critically about how their data will be used. It may be just as necessary to advocate for effective enforcement of sanctions and penalties for any corruption that open data exposes by working with law enforcement or strengthening the legislative framework itself.

The peer dialogue was held under the “Effective Combat Against Corruption” project. The peer dialogue and this article were made possible with the support of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.

Published on June 4, 2021.

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