By Kenneth P. Doyle
Oct. 28 — An ongoing $3.5 million project by the Federal Election Commission to improve sharing of campaign finance data and redesign the FEC website is aimed at giving “the average citizen the most transparency we can” regarding presidential and congressional candidates, according to Lee Goodman, a Republican FEC commissioner who helped launch the project last year.
Goodman told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 28 that he hoped increased search capabilities would be ready for broad public use on the FEC's regular website at fec.gov by next November, when voters will choose a new president and members of Congress.
For now, public availability of a test version of the website at beta.FEC.gov is set to be announced at an FEC commission meeting Oct. 29. The test version of the website was previewed during an interview with Goodman and Paul Clark, an FEC staffer working on the redesign project.
Goodman and Clark also noted that the FEC recently has made available a new API—which stands for application programming interface—allowing the biggest traditional users of FEC data easier access to the agency's database and greater ability to crunch the numbers in new ways.
The main goal of the website project, however, is to allow individuals—not just the media and nonprofit groups that traditionally analyze FEC data—to conduct a more robust search for information about each candidate's campaign funding sources and spending, Goodman said.
In a demonstration of the new website for Bloomberg BNA, for example, a single search was able to provide information not only about a candidate's primary campaign committee but also about super political action committees that spent money to support the candidate and fund-raising committees the candidate joined to help to raise campaign money. The test version also was able to provide detailed information about a candidate's spending on everything from political consultants and advertising to cabs and doughnuts.
Goodman and Clark emphasized that the version of the website now being released is a work in progress. An FEC fact sheet said this version already has been shared with frequent users of the FEC website for their comments and now is being unveiled to “allow the public to take a test drive and let us know what we have gotten right and what needs improvement.”
Goodman said he insisted on having a “feedback” box at the bottom of every page on the new website so that users could provide immediate comments with a click.
The FEC effort is being aided by 18F, a government team providing digital services to federal agencies under the General Services Administration.
The project has broad support within the FEC despite the chronic battles that Democratic and Republican commissioners have fought over other issues. Its unveiling may provide a moment of comity at the Oct. 29 FEC meeting before commissioners debate more contentious questions dealing with regulation of political parties and coordination between candidates and super PACs (See previous story, 10/26/15).
Launch of the website redesign project was first announced last year by Goodman, who then held the FEC's rotating chairmanship, and Ann Ravel, a Democratic commissioner who was then the FEC vice chairwoman and now chairs the commission.
Goodman and Ravel announced in March of 2014 that the FEC had received a budget boost of about $1.5 million to hire additional staff to review campaign finance disclosure reports and improve the agency's website (53 DER A-12, 3/19/14). This year's budget for the project is even higher—$1.9 million—Goodman said in the Bloomberg BNA interview.
In addition to improved search functions, the work being done on the website will make it safer from hacking problems encountered in the past, Goodman indicated. These problems became acute in 2013, due to incidents reportedly originating in China. During that year, the agency's main web portal providing public access to campaign finance information was unavailable for an extended period (214 DER A-14, 11/5/13).
The website later returned to its previous level of functionality, but remained vulnerable to future security threats, according to an internal review. An audit report released in late 2013 by the office of FEC Inspector General Lynne McFarland said computer systems at the FEC had been hacked repeatedly, limiting public access to campaign finance information and potentially compromising confidential information about FEC enforcement cases and procedures.
While the security improvements may be invisible to the public, the FEC hopes website users will see a range of improvements in access to campaign finance data. According to the agency's fact sheet, new features could include:
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