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Statelight: Transparency in a Box, Pt. 2

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As Nicole wrote last week, we're digging into state level transparency, in order to share what we know, and to help empower activists around the country to create more transparency in their governments.

We have chosen three priority issues to begin with, and today I'm looking at why we feel like those issues are good places to start for state-based advocacy. They are: Ethics and Campaign Finance, Legislative Data, and Budget Transparency.

Ethics and Campaign Finance: While this category could include a variety of different things, I think first of a few pieces of information -- campaign contributions, personal financial disclosures, and lobbying disclosure that each play a fundamental role in creating accountability in government.

When campaign contributions are disclosed in public, we can better understand the motivations of our elected officials, who spend an increasing amount of time raising funds for electoral campaigns, rather than attending to their official duties. Personal Financial Disclosure forms, while they may sound wonky, are one of the best safeguards we have against conflicts of interest and bribery -- without them, it would be all too easy for officials to give in to the temptation to conduct public business with private gains in mind. Finally, lobbying disclosure gives an essential view to the work of moneyed interests, who all too often have disproportional influence in public decisions.

In finding the right balance for ethics disclosure, privacy and speech rights need to be weighed against the public interest in disclosure.

Budget Transparency: Budget transparency can really involve two related issues -- first, how the state prepares and makes a plan for spending priorities, and second, how the state ends up actually spending funds. There is enormous interest in tracking spending across the country, which shouldn't be surprising, given the size of the sums involved, and the budget crisis so many states are facing. Technology is also changing our expectations for budget transparency, just as it's becoming easier to display more detailed information about expenditures, contracts, and grants, in real time.

Pitfalls in working on budget transparency include complicated budget terminology, the unreliability of underlying budget reporting mechanisms, and potentially proprietary information contained in contracts.

Legislative Data: Legislative data transparency can also mean a variety of things. For the purposes of this work, we're thinking especially of two. First, access to the data that legislatures release about their work. Sites like GovTrack.us and OpenCongress.org rely on legislative data to share bills, votes, and amendments. Unfortunately, they also have to piece together information that should be posted online in a way that encourages reliable and timely reuse. This problem -- governments posting information and ignoring their role as data providers -- permeates state legislatures as well as the US Congress, and is one we'd like to help solve.

Second, legislative data can refer to whether or not bills, amendments, and votes are posted online. Too often, bills are considered without a meaningful period for public inspection, and votes and amendments aren't posted at all. At the federal level, Sunlight has long called for 72 hours for all non-emergency legislation, and is working to put votes and amendments online (among other things). State legislatures all face similar questions, and activists can have a real impact on what they decide to release.

For both sorts of legislative data transparency, the public stakes are clear: when legislatures share their workings better online, citizens will be closer to the work being done in their name, and representation will work better.

Opposition to legislative transparency often comes in the form of a reluctance to do anything differently, a majority party (or committee chair) that is unwilling to give up their privileged access to information, and all to often, budget restraints.

We'll be highlighting great work being done in each of these areas soon, in the ensuing posts in this series, that Nicole laid out last week.

If you're interested in getting started with transparency advocacy in your state, feel free to get in touch with our organizing team at organizing@sunlightfoundation.com. If you're not sure where to start, Laurenellen will have a post soon* with advice to get you started.

*For the next installment of the Statelight series, click here!