Study: Ordinary people struggle to use many state campaign finance websites

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Dozens of state campaign finance disclosure websites fail to meet basic usability standards for ordinary people, according to the results of a new study.

The Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, released a new report on the issue last week examining how easily people could use the websites to find out how much money each state’s governor collected in campaign contributions in their most recent elections.

Researchers found that, in 32 percent of all attempts by the users recruited for the study, people failed to find the information they were tasked with uncovering within 10 minutes. Of the users who were able to complete their tasks, analysts found that they only managed to answer an average of 54 percent of the questions correctly based on the information available on the websites.

In all, users in 26 states recorded accuracy rates below 55 percent. Participants in the study also got a chance to rate the websites based on how easy they were to use: Fourteen states earned outright negative ratings, while 10 received middling scores. A total of 12 states got high marks from testers, with the websites for Minnesota, Washington, New Mexico and Alabama standing substantially in front of the pack.

Michael Malbin, the institute’s executive director and one of the study’s authors, told StateScoop that he hopes the study shines a light on how difficult the sites are to use for “political amateurs,  people who don’t use them as part of their occupations.”

“The user that’s kind of left out of the picture is the normal citizen who pays the bills for these things,” Malbin said. “But the initial promise of disclosure was it would help citizens make decisions in an election, help citizens understand what’s happening afterwards.”

Malbin noted that he’s been working with these sites for years and still tends to find many “very frustrating” to use, but he wanted the study to include the perspectives of ordinary people. Accordingly, his team used Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” platform to recruit about 1,900 people for the project.

While the participants Malbin’s group recruited were “not a perfect replication of the general population,” he said that they expected that these users might be more internet-savvy than others based on their experience with similar projects, giving them a slightly better shot at successfully using the websites than the average person.

Each participant was tasked with visiting a maximum of five state websites and completing a questionnaire. The researchers asked people to find how much money a state’s governor received in campaign contributions in their last election, as well as donor lists for each governor.

If they couldn’t complete those tasks within 10 minutes, Malbin said they were directed to stop looking.

“We assumed that if you’re an average person noodling around, trying to find out how much money your governor raised in the last election cycle, that you wouldn’t want to spend more than 10 minutes doing that,” Malbin said. “If you took it that long, then you’re going to get frustrated and you’re off to the next job, because you’re not doing this for your job.”

On 12 state sites, more than 41 percent of users failed to find the data they were looking for within that time period, while between 31 and 41 percent of users couldn’t find the target information in 11 states.

[Read more: Commentary: The best — and worst — state legislature websites]

Malbin also asked participants how easy the terminology on each site was to understand and found that roughly half of the websites earned negative ratings from users.

“We found that most people haven’t a clue what many of these words mean, and there’s no reason they should,” Malbin said. “Very few websites even begin to define the technical terms for people.”

That’s why he said a glossary of terms or a “frequently asked questions” page should be a staple for any campaign finance site. Indeed, he included that standard in the report’s list of recommendations for agencies looking to overhaul these sites, charging that states also need make the sites more readily searchable and easier to navigate.

However, Malbin worries that many states lack the resources to make these changes, even if they aren’t especially onerous.

“In many agencies, the staff are overworked and underbudgeted, and to carve out space to do this, even if you want to do it, is very, very hard,” Malbin said.

But he does see hope for change in this area through the Federal Election Commission’s website overhaul, which was spearheaded by the 18F design team in the federal General Services Administration. Malbin hailed the group’s work to build the new beta site, which he said is “a lot better” for users of all stripes, and noted that the open source software powering the web portal could prove immensely useful for states.

“If an agency is willing to make the switch to open programming platforms, then I think those [changes] are easy, but that’s a significant mental, and sometimes political, leap for agencies to take,” Malbin said.

Yet without a dedicated group of designers similar to 18F, Malbin worries it might take years for agencies to make that leap.

“The typical agency has only a handful of people who work full time on campaign finance,” Malbin said. “You’d almost need to find something like an 18F, teams of tech people who are willing to help the agencies troubleshoot this, without it coming out of the agency’s budget.”

Contact the reporter at alex.koma@statescoop.com, and follow him on Twitter @AlexKomaSNG.

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18F, campaign finance, Data & Analytics, Digital Services, Open Data, Open Government, Open Source, Software, State & Local News, Tech News, transparency, Websites
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