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Ellen Miller on Transparency in Government

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When Ellen Miller talks, you’ve got to listen. For those with an interest in Open and Transparent Government, keeping the Executive and legislative branches accountable and uncovering the links between money and polities, her work at Sunlight has been inspiring. She recently appeared on C-SPAN’s Communicators to talk about how the Internet can provide greater transparency in the workings of government. She described some of Sunlight’s achievements and how they continue to focus on making government information more easily accessible to Americans.

The foundation supports a wide range of databases to help citizens research the links between politics and money. It also concentrates on visualizing and contextualizing government data through innovative websites, data mashups and citizen participation.

The interview is peppered with references to websites and databases, which I’ve expanded on below.

Rational for the Foundation

Ellen explains that Sunlight Foundation was created to utilize the power of the Internet to make information about the federal government and congress more accessible to citizens. The foundation’s website puts it succinctly:

Sunlight’s ultimate goal is to strengthen the relationship between citizens and their elected officials and to foster public trust in government.

Underlying all of Sunlight’s efforts is a fundamental belief that increased transparency will improve the conduct of lawmakers and the public’s confidence in government.

The foundation is particularly focused on making sure information about the US Congress, the Executive and regulatory agencies are put into the hands of citizens and made available 24/7. In order to do this they’ve digitized information in order to free it from the geographical confines of government entities. In this vein they’re provided grants to fund sites such as OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org. These sites provide information on political funding at a state and federal level.

A central tenet of the Sunlight’s mission is openness. Thus, the data contained in their databases is made freely available through APIs to other developers. Also, the source code used to create their applications and websites is open source and freely available to developers to build upon.

Facts are sacred

It was CP Scott in 1921 that said ‘Comment is free…but facts are sacred’. In order to stimulate healthy debate within civic society, citizens must have access to the facts. These are vital to establishing effective arguments and engaging productively with legislators.

One of the largest beneficiaries of Sunlight grants is OpenCongress.org.  Tens of thousands of people visit the site to get factual information on legislative texts. Here people can comment and discuss bills, register their approval/disapproval and subsequently contact their elected representative. Ellen explains that they’ve created these tools and websites to ensure everyone has access to unbiased information about what’s going on in government.

Sunlight takes care to fund organizations that provide raw data and do not project political or partisan commentary on the nature of the data. Citizens can of course interpret the data as they wish and contribute their views accordingly, but Sunlight is a non-partisan organization with a focus on data and not comment. Sites such as FollowTheMoney.org, FedSpending.org (database of Government spending) and PoliticalPartyTime (database of fund-raising events) all represent factual data devoid of political analysis or interpretation.

Digitizing information

The issue with a lot of government data is not necessarily that it’s unavailable, but rather that it’s not easily accessible online. In order to quantity information as being in the public realm, it must exist online. This is a maxim that is at the essence of Sunlight’s mission.

Some information can only be found in the basement of a government agency. Much government data exists in paper or PDF format, both of which cannot be easily extracted for analysis. In order to solve this issue Sunlight has run crowdsourcing campaigns through Transparencycorps.org. This site allows citizens to help in the digitizing of paper records, and the creation of new transparent databases. It’s been used with success to make earmarks more transparent and to collate contact information for State officials.

Ellen outlines an example of how their work in digitizing information can help citizens and journalists research more effectively. Sunlight – in association with the investigative non-profit ProPublica – recently created a database of Americans who lobby on behalf of foreign governments. ForeignLobbying.org was created based on a year’s worth of filings made under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. This information, however, was only available in paper format in the Justice Department. By digitizing it and making it accessible online, citizens are now able to search the data by legislator, client or country. Such analysis could not have been done efficiently were the information not digitized.

Another example cited is the visualization of the congressional record. This project was started to help citizens understand the day-to-day issues discussed in Congress. Every day the congressional record contains more words than “A Tale of Two Cities”. In order to make this data more interesting and accessible , Sunlight created a site called Capitol words. This site displays the most popular words from the record each day through a visually appealing interface. As such, it provides an easily accessible insight for citizens into what Congress was talking about on a particular day.

What’s information is popular?

At the moment, it’s healthcare.

Ellen discusses how tens of thousands of people are going to OpenCongress.org to look at the HR3200 bill. Indeed, if anyone looks up “hr3200” in Google the first result will be a link to the bill text at OpenCongress.

The bill has received over 620,000 views and 1,300 comments on the site. This healthy discussion is possible because the entire text of the bill is displayed in a non-partisan environment. Anyone can search the text for specific terms e.g. “Death panel”, in order to assess for themselves whether certain allegations of what’s in the bill are true or not.

Other sites such as TweetCongress allow citizens to find their elected officials and contact them directly. They can see the top trending topics among Congress people which, like Capitol Words, provides an indicative view of the issues Congress people think are important.

Citizen participation

The Sunlight Foundation funds a wiki site called LittleSis.org which is described as an “involuntary Facebook” for the powerful. It’s currently focusing on revolving door lobbyists in the healthcare industry. The site allows citizens to add information on people who used to work for members of congress and are now healthcare lobbyists. This contributes to greater transparency about those participating in the Heath care reform debate, and serves to contextualize their views. The public can then decide whether their backgrounds could cloud their opinions and make their views less genuine.

The notion of citizen participation is another central tenet of Sunlight’s mission. Such citizen involvement extends to legislative analysis and commentary. Sunlight’s advocacy program tries to convince government (both the Executive and Legislative branches) to put more information online, and make it available for public comment. The ReadTheBill.org campaign requires Congress to put all legislation online for 72 hours before it’s considered for vote. The objective is to:

strengthen our democracy by making sure elected officials and citizens have the chance to read and understand legislation.

Ellen notes how citizens exceptions of how they interact with government are changing. They now expect to be able to give their opinion on government matters, and also find what they want online 24/7.

A recent Pew study showed some 74% of internet users – representing 55% of the entire adult population – went online in 2008 to get involved in the political process or to get news and information about the election. There is a huge mass of people interested in participating in the political process, and government needs to provide them with the data to effect public good. Tim O’Reilly’s concept of Government as a Platform is central to enabling this participation.

The Administration’s progress on Transparency

While the President did promise he would “not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days”, this has not been fully implemented.

Consequently, Ellen describes the Administration’s transparency efforts as a “mixed bag”. She notes how some terrific things have been done (e.g. data.gov), but there are some things that are not coming quickly enough. She cites the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government as a hugely important step, because it ‘planted a flag saying we want to be transparent, collaborative and engage with citizens’. As such, this is a standard we can hold all the administration’s efforts to.

What’s next?

One of Sunlight’s current projects is to push through legislation called S.482. This which would require the Senate to post their campaign finance reports electronically, similar to what Congress has been doing for years. Ellen notes that there is no reason for the Senate not to do this. The current process of passing these details to the Federal Election commission slows down the transparency process and causes unnecessary expense and delay. Sunlight has mounted a major campaign to get this legislation passed and expects this to happen in the near future.

The increasing sophistication of data visualizations is another exciting area in which Sunlight will be concentrating in the future. They have already used tools such as Gapminder in order to visualize the growth of campaign contributions to Democrats and Republicans over the last decade. This visualization technology is also used in the Federal IT Dashboard and provides powerful analysis of trends over time. Mashing up data with tools such as Google Earth is another area in which Sunlight expects to focus attention. Sites such as EarmarkWatch already allow users to fly over congressional districts and view associated earmarks. This enables citizens to understand geographically the allocation of spending.

Gauging success

Ellen notes that Sunlight determines its success based on two criteria:

1) Seeing government realize and accept that it’s their responsibility to provide data to citizens. Changing the prevailing orthodoxy of data as secret and government owned is necessary to ushering in a new era of free and open data. Enlightened officials such as Vivek Kundra and Aneesh Chopra are pushing the open data agenda forward. Also, sites such as Data.gov and Usaspending.gov are steps in this direction. Another important test will be the openness of data within sites such as Recovery.gov when it is revamped later this year.

2) Increasing citizen use of the information provided by Sunlight. Ellen wants to see more citizens actively use sites such as OpenCongress and OpenSecrets to become engaged in the political process. The success of applications created from competitions such as Apps for America are indicative of the popularity of Sunlight funded data sets and APIs.

In the end, however, I suspect a more engaged and healthy civic society, fully involved and participating with their elected representatives based on uptodate knowledge of government activities, is what success really looks like. Sunlight is making this happen.

For more information on the Sunlight Foundation see SunlightFoundation.com or watch “A Conversation with Ellen Miller” from this year’s Web 2.0 expo.

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