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Five Simple Things State Disclosure Agencies Can Do to Improve the Usability of Disclosure Web Sites

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1.  Include full reporting periods in online campaign finance reports

Many states post campaign finance reports online, but do not include the full reporting period dates either on a report summary page, or in the index of reports for a particular candidate.  Featuring the complete reporting period dates, (i.e. “1/1/2004 - 3/31/2004”) rather than just the ending date, due date, or name of the report (i.e. “2nd pre-election”), gives the public additional context for the data included within each filing.  If the complete timeframe for the data is omitted, site users must locate a calendar of disclosure filing dates or first browse through the data in order to determine the complete scope of a particular set of records.  States that feature reporting periods in report indexes include Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, and Oklahoma.

2.  Improve web site terminology

Replacing confusing terminology with plain language descriptions and links will help state disclosure agencies improve web site usability and make disclosure web sites easier to navigate.  For example, agencies might replace labels such as “Ad Hoc Query”, or “Native ASCii”, with language more suitable for a general audience rather than a data specialist.  Sometimes even the text of the main link to access campaign reports is unclear on disclosure web sites.  Keeping it simple with phrasing such as “View campaign finance records” or “Search disclosure reports” helps people quickly locate candidate filings.  States whose disclosure web sites use clear terminology throughout include Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

3.  Make it easier to find the disclosure web site from the state homepage

In a number of states it can be difficult or nearly impossible to locate the disclosure agency’s web site from the main state homepage, especially for those people who do not know the exact name of the agency responsible for disseminating campaign finance records.  The disclosure web site should be easy to find through the “Government”, “Citizen” and “A-Z Services” menus that are common on state web portals, and should also be returned among the first few results of a search for the terms “campaign finance” or “campaign disclosure”.  State disclosure agencies would have to work with state technology staff to implement these changes, but they can be relatively easy to make, particularly when it comes to adding a new listing to an existing topic or subject index.  States whose disclosure web sites are very easy to find from the state homepage include Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Virginia, and Washington.

4.  Provide site visitors with complete instructions for accessing campaign finance records

Whether a disclosure web site features only scanned images of campaign reports or a fully interactive, searchable database of campaign records, providing a detailed and complete set of instructions for how to access reports online is crucial to citizens’ ability to make the most of that data.  Some states feature one-sentence tips in key places on the web site, which works if the interface for viewing reports is very simple.  More complex systems and searchable databases necessitate the posting of thorough instructions, including information about “smart search” capability, database limitations, required fields, and any technical issues, such as case-sensitivity when searching online records.  A number of states separate basic instructions from more detailed help/troubleshooting information; some offer instructions in a series of Frequently Asked Questions.  Whatever the format, providing in-depth instructions for site visitors will greatly reduce confusion and technical difficulty, and will enhance access to disclosure reports.  States who give site visitors thorough instructions for viewing campaign data include California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Washington, and West Virginia.

5. Prominently display the disclosure agency’s complete contact information on the web site

Every state disclosure web site features at least one piece of contact information for the disclosure agency somewhere on the site.  However, contact information is both more conspicuous and more complete in some instances than in others.  Prominently featuring the agency’s street and mailing addresses, main phone number, and central email address is perhaps the easiest way for a disclosure agency to improve the contextual usability of its web site.  A handful of states also list staff names and titles, along with those individuals’ phone numbers or email addresses.  At least one includes photographs of disclosure staff, to literally give the agency’s web site a “face” online.  Preferably, contact information would be displayed on the agency’s homepage; if this is not possible for some reason, the second choice is to have full information available through an obvious “contact us” link on the homepage.  States that feature complete contact information online include Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.

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This page was first published on October 25, 2004
| Last updated on October 25, 2004
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