Finding a Story in Austin's Lobbying Data

Over the past few months, Open Austin members have tried a series of experiments with the city’s open lobbying data to find out how much it tells us about local politics. In one experimental chart, we graphed the running totals of lobbyists registered to work for various companies at any given time. On that graph, we can see when various companies hired lobbyists, but we don’t really know why the companies hired them or who the companies were trying to persuade. The reason lobbying data interests us is that it’s supposed to shine a light on how government decisions are made, but we really can’t make out much of a story in that graph. If we already knew the recent history of city politics, maybe we could guess the significance of the dates when AT&T or Uber decided to add a few more lobbyists to their payroll. But clearly, it would take a lot of research or deep expertise in the city’s political scene to put the existing data in context, and it’s not likely to be cost-efficient for anyone to research the story behind every filing.

The solution

Council Member Leslie Pool has offered a solution to this problem by introducing a new bill to improve the quality of data available about city lobbying. If it passes, the rules about disclosing lobbying at city hall will be about as strong as the equivalent rules for the state Legislature. One dogged proponent of lobbying reform is attorney Fred Lewis, who highlights the benefits of reform through his organization, “Lobby Reform Now!”. Because current law has an ill-defined exception for lobbying “incidental” to one’s regular job, Lewis decries the existing law as “essentially voluntary and meaningless.”

Importantly, the new bill will require electronic filing not just of registration forms, but also the lobbying activity forms. Its passage will mean that for the first time, the city will release open data about how much each client paid to each lobbyist, and about how much money each lobbyist spent on each city official. Also, lobbyists will have to report the subject matter of their lobbying and report the addresses of any locations where they’re seeking building permits. Releasing this data would be very helpful for city government transparency.

For comparison, on the state level, it’s possible to link lobbyists’ expenditures to individuals, which at least lets us see communities among lawmakers and legislators. Here’s an image of which lobbyists paid for travel for state legislators from 2004 to 2014:

state legislator travel network graph

Even on the state level, it’s not easy to make the data tell a story. We can’t easily infer what the lobbyists are trying to accomplish when they buy lobbyists’ meals or pay for their travel. It’s too bad the graphs don’t show who each lobbyist spoke to on each client’s behalf, and which issues they discussed. Still, the more political data the government releases, the more opportunities it creates for useful insights. To learn more about our data exploration, visit Open Austin’s Github repo for lobbyist data.

What can you do?

Austin City Council is set to vote on Council Member Pool’s lobby reform proposal on June 23rd. As the draft stands today, it would make Austin a model city in terms of reporting lobbyist activity. As it stands, the proposal has no problematic provisions but we expect lobbyists may try to put forth weakening admendments.

Please, between now and 6/23, call or email the offices of the mayor and your council member to support the bill without amendments.