Recommendation 3: Help those who help the filers
FEC staff help improve data quality and the filer experience by helping people file correctly. Some filers also take advantage of a robust vendor community that integrates with FEC tools to help filers. Vendors often offer filing as part of a broader suite of products and services that make running a campaign easier, so making it easier for vendors to integrate with FEC tools is an effective way to improve the experience for filers, vendors and data users. In our research, supporting those who help filers complete reports successfully emerged as an important means of ensuring accurate data.
This recommendation is part of the 2016 E-Filing study.
Support developers both inside and outside the FEC
Building the e-filing system and related utilities using open source software could help build trust among users and vendors. Open source software would make it easier for commercial software vendors to integrate with FEC software and make it clear what changes are made to the modules the vendors use.
The 18F Open Source Policy identifies the main benefits of open source to be:
- Flexibility: you can customize existing libraries faster than creating your own software from the ground up.
- Community involvement: enabling continuous and broad peer review.
- Cost savings: increased flexibility and reuse can reduce development time, and shared packages can defray the costs of maintenance.
- Reusability: ”By coding in FOSS (free open source software), we help populate a larger commons that cities, states, businesses, and individuals can participate in. This creates real economic value by lowering the burden of replicating similar work or by allowing the private sector to build off of and create new businesses around code...”
Additionally, there are cost savings because open source software doesn’t have licensing fees. Database licenses can cost over $500,000 a year.
One of the value adds of openFEC, the API that supports beta.fec.gov, is that it presents the variables as words rather than clipped abbreviations that require experts to decipher. For instance, there are hundreds of data columns. While some abbreviations are intuitive, there are many cases where it is not -- for example, needing to know that the meaning of a particular variable name such as ‘ind_uni_con’ actually means individual unitemized contributions. This issue is compounded by the fact that the abbreviations are not consistent across database tables and views. Having full words as column and variable names makes the code easier to read. When the code is easier to read, it is easier to maintain.
In addition to clear, consistent naming, the codebase could benefit from more inline documentation. Documentation should describe the function of code and also the reason that the function is necessary. For example, if code is changed to fit a rare but important scenario, the condition that the code was written for should be added to in in-line documentation.
Having code with readable variable names and in-line documentation, along with some instructive, narrative documentation about how to start up and maintain the codebase, will make maintenance and onboarding developers to the FEC team more approachable.
Aside from the internal benefits, readable, consistent and well documented code creates output that is easier to read and data that is easier to use by individuals outside the organization. During October and November of 2016, the FEC website with the API documentation had 23,500 page views, each representing an individual attempting to understand aspects of the data.
Support personal connections within the filing community
Filers often reach out to others for help in the filing process. Many seek help from analysts in the Reports Analysis Division, but we also heard stories of filers reaching out to others in the filing community or compliance professionals in their networks.
Build on trusted relationships between filers and their RAD analysts
RAD is divided into four branches, two of which are responsible for reviewing reports. Each committee is assigned an analyst within the branch that serves their type of committee. We heard from a number of filers and RAD analysts that they develop trusted relationships over time. RAD analysts who get to know the committees and the individuals who file on their behalf are able to help them more quickly and easily.
During business hours, filers can call the Reports Analysis Division and talk with their analyst to resolve an issue. However, many reports come in late in the day on the day the report is due, and while RAD and EFO extend hours of support from 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm on major filing deadlines, filers sometimes still need support when RAD analysts are not available. We heard of instances where filers’ inability to contact RAD resulted in not being able to file their reports, or receiving a fine—not to mention causing the filer stress.
“Yes, first time I filed, it was late. I knew I had a deadline, but I left it till last minute. The day before it was due I went to submit, but it came up with all these error messages. And I didn't know how to fix it so it would go through. I called the FEC that night, but it was closed. So I got a late notice about a $60 fine because it was late… It was pretty stressful. It was hard to find out info about what was going on. I really thought I had done it correctly. I was reading the guidelines but it still wasn’t going through”
In the example above, the filer looked for help only within the FEC, but several compliance professionals we talked to outside of the FEC told us they informally help one another and less experienced filers navigate the complexities of filing their reports.
“There are always instances that come up—scenarios you haven’t encountered before that, in our office, we kick around amongst the other reps and see if perhaps anyone else has encountered it and how they did it… I’d be hesitant just to take the advice kind of blindly. There are not a million of us that do this… So there are the usual suspects, and we all kind of bounce things off each other.”
“[Name of compliance firm], they’ve been doing it a long time and are very well respected, and we’re all friends… so I’ll shoot them an email and make sure we are all thinking about it the same way.”
In response to a question about where to go for after hours help:
“I deal with a lot of different law firms, so I can call... I could always pick up the phone and call and say ‘I’ve got this, what do you think?’ For the average person that doesn’t have those resources, shy of searching through advisory opinions on the website or reaching out to somebody else in the field, I guess you kind of do it the best you can.”
We also heard from filers who work on reports as a side job during evenings and weekends when they cannot access the some types of FEC support.
“There are times when I have to spend my entire weekend, 14+ hours each day, entering data to meet a filing deadline, and if there's some problem getting to the website one of those days, I'm going to end up getting fined because I have a "real" job during the week.”
Filers could leverage the knowledge within their community to answer their questions without turning to the FEC for help, but trust is critical to information sharing within this community.
We tested one idea on how the FEC might foster these relationships and provide help after hours via a prototype. We prototyped a “community” feature in FECFile that would let users live chat with others online—both other filers and folks at the FEC—and that their conversations could be viewed by others using FECFile. (Figure 9)
Figure 9. Example of community feature in e-filing prototype. [Full size image]
Participant's responses to this feature were positive, with a few caveats. While the filers who tested this prototype were enthusiastic about the ability to connect with others inside of FEC, many were not comfortable with letting just anyone respond to their questions. Participants said they would not trust answers from unknown respondents and some felt that only experts within the FEC should be allowed to respond to questions in FECFile. This is evidence to the filing community’s desire for increased access to RAD and others at FEC.
The FEC is already working to meet this need with the Correspondence Tracking System, which will allow filers to identify and contact their RAD analyst via email using a contact form on the website. The system will also help ensure that filers get consistent answers. RAD keeps a library of responses to common questions and the tool will allow the Analysts to easily respond with approved language.
Our research points to a clear need for support that filers can trust. The FEC's customer Correspondence Tracking System will enable filers to submit questions at any hour, but their need would further be met if the this system were staffed by RAD analysts during peak filing times outside of normal working hours.
Build trust among members of the filer community
Through our prototyping activity, we learned that filers are enthusiastic about learning from others in the filing community, but that they need to be able to trust the source of the information. Through prototyping, we learned that filers believe communication in an FEC forum (such as within FECFile or the FEC website) should be between filers and the FEC. And although we also learned that participants had concerns about the trustworthiness of filing advice from people outside the FEC, opportunities to enhance information sharing among filers out in the community do exist.
Research on trust in computer mediated communication shows that the design of an information and communication system can influence users’ community trust by providing visibility into community members’ characteristics and behavior. If filer’s verifiable characteristics, such as that of being a board certified attorney, were visible to others in the filing community via a Google group or listserv, it might promote the development of trusted relationships among filers.
Making filers and analysts’ behavior more public could also aid in the development of trust within the community. Filers who tested our prototype were excited about the possibility of being able to see and search other filers’ conversations with RAD as a way to learn from others experience before calling RAD themselves. Making live chat transcripts available to filers would make their behavior more visible to others in the community and thereby enable community members to develop knowledge-based trust based on community members past behaviors. Additionally, filers might be able to resolve their questions by reading about how similar issues were handled without picking up the phone, and could therefore reduce the burden of phone calls on their RAD analyst. However, a building block in the trusted relationships that filers develop with their analyst is the fact that analysts keep filers’ information confidential. It is possible that filers would not want to publicize conversations with their analyst, so whether transcripts are shared should be optional. The planned Correspondence Tracking System will achieve this by giving analysts the ability to suggest that an answer they gave be published as a “solution” that other filers can view.
Finally, by fostering trusted relationships among filers who have different levels of experience, the FEC could alleviate some of the burden on RAD. Experienced filers are proud of the workarounds they have created that help them file their reports efficiently, and in several cases they talked about how they are happy to share this knowledge with others in the filing community. The FEC could help filers like the one who could not get help after hours by helping them connect with others in the community.