Inside the Lobbyist Registry

Kevin O'Donnell
2013-11-14 22:19

On November 14th I met with two members of the Service Ottawa team to talk about open-data and discuss with them my experiences while developing OttWatch. The purpose of the meeting was just a high-level gab about open data and the city's SIRE system (keeper of agendas, items, files and votes, etc). I've spent a good number of hours poking around SIRE from the outside, so I was happy to discuss the challenges the system has and offer an insight or two.

I'm also a professional software developer by trade, so unsurprisingly it was easy for me to make a tangential comment along the lines of "well, if you wanted to do X that's certainly something I could provide". 

BAM - lobbyist! I pitched an idea and let it be known I would also be able to deliver the solution for said idea.

I had a hunch this would happen so earlier that morning I decided to get registered.

Besides adhering to the rules I was also curious about the user-experience from a lobbyist's perspective. Is the interface very simple and intuitive, so lapses in transparency are inexcusable? Are some parts more challenging - to the point that even whip smart lawyers and urban planners can be excused for getting confused?

Let's find out.

Below is a chronicle of my experience as a first time lobbyist. I registered as Jerboa Consulting Inc, my federal corporation, since if I'm ever going to do paid work for someone that is the vehicle it would flow through.

Before the Meeting

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The first step is to register as a lobbyist. This was very easy to do. 

On the front page of Ottawa.ca there is a link to the Accountability and Transparency area and it lists Lobbyist Registry as one of the topics therein. So all it takes to find the lobbyist registry is to go to the city's website and "find" the word "lobby" anywhere on the page. Alternatively, using the search box with any of lobby, lobbying or lobbyist turns up a relevant result on the first attempt.

So no excuses about not being able to find the registry.

Clicking "Log In" to the registry yields a standard username and password prompt for returning users, along with a "Register" link for first time users. What to do is pretty obvious.

Registering is straightforward as shown in the screenshots. The only field that may not be intuitive is "Type of Lobbyist". I chose Consultant. The other options are "In-house" or "Volunteer". These are defined elsewhere and while this may trip someone up it is not the end of the world.

As soon as I accepted the Terms of User and the Code of Conduct I received an email. While my account is current in the "pending" state I am already able to register lobbying activities.

The "pending" state makes sense. Otherwise the registry could easily be abused by The Unwashed Masses on the Internet. As soon as my account is approved anything I have already registered will appear.

On the Late Lobbying Report

I now realize the Late Lobbying Report could be unfair to first-time lobbyists. They are given 15 business days to register activities in the registry. But with the delay of having their account approved before activities become visible OttWatch may unfairly detect them as late if they filed before the deadline, but their time in purgatory pushed them across the line from a public perspective. I'll add a new asterisk shortly. That said, existing lobbyists have no such excuse.

Three Hours Later: Approved

Just shy of three hours after registering as a lobbyist my account was approved. My experience with City of Ottawa staff has overwhelmingly been positive so I would wager same-day, or next-day, approvals are more common than not. So perhaps the Late Lobbying Report is more accurate than I just conjectured.

New Lobbying File

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After the meeting I logged back into the registry and had to add my first lobbying file against which I'll then log activities (meeting, emails, etc) on that topic. This will be my first file. Jeff Polowin has 41 on the go at the moment.

Title: I get to pick my own title that is a private reference to help me remember what this is about. Mine is no secret, but lobbyists might enter something like "re-zoning of 99 Something Street" here even though that's still a trade secret in their line of business. I chose "SIRE Search and View" since that's pretty much what we talked about.

Subject Matter: A breakdown of services the city provides from affordable housing, to childcare, to planning (with heritage, zoning, site plan, etc, breakouts). I chose Information Technology obviously.

Issue: A free-form area to describe the topic at hand. I went with "Discussion about SIRE agenda management system view/search features and potential for professional services to provide improvements." This is where it all goes wrong for some lobbyists. Examples like "ciruclar driveway" and "new concept" are not very helpful. Gold stars to Gregory Mignon for "Preliminary inquiries about potential development of property at 151-155 Meadowlands for retirement home. Discussions with Councillor regarding addressing community concerns."

Client Name/Company: Obvious for me to simply repeat Jerboa here. Professionals like Polowin would enter the name of their different clients. I'm guessing this is where some people are getting confused and they enter "City of Ottawa" because the City is there client (they sell them services, or road salt, etc). The registry is really asking for "name of company you are lobbying for" not "name of your client as a vendor to the city". Here's a list of everyone who put "City of Ottawa" in this field

New Activity on the File

As a lobbyist I've now declared myself as a person, and given a topic on which I'm lobbying, but I haven't said who I've lobbied or when. It's time to add an activity. Simple enough.

Enter a date then pick from all my lobbying files using the private title. Say how the lobbying occurred: meeting, email, mail, telephone or other. Then start typing the name of the person you lobbied and a short-list is presented after a few characters. 

Click add and done. Very simple.

The "Add All Council" and "Add Mayor" links are helpful. These likely explain the occasional odd filing that registers a meeting with all 24 members of council on the same day. A face-to-face with all 24 councillors, mayor included, on the same day? Nobody has that kind of pull. Simple user error. Twenty-four emails would be reasonable. A meeting though? Unlikely.

All In - Less than an hour

Registering as a lobbyist took less than 10 minutes. Adding my first file and logging the first activities took about the same. I found the interface intuitive though I might have some advantage given the amount of time I've spent observing the outputs from the registry. Nonetheless, anyone who earns money interpreting arcane planning law and navigating the complexities of City Hall can be expected to file perfectly unambiguous lobbying entries. In my humble opinion.

This has all been enjoyably meta.

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