Sunlight is very proud to share the news that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will award us $4 million over the next three years to increase our ability to make more government data more accessible, especially on the state and local level. With this new support, we will focus more on making more government data accessible to more and more people -- not just journalists and experts. This new funding from the Knight Foundation will undoubtedly go a long way toward giving us more resources to make online government transparency a reality, enabling us to continue to build tools to bring that data to the public and share with the growing open government community lessons learned from our work.
Elsewhere in the Sunlight network
- Americans for Prosperity takes aim at farm bill Sunlight Reporting Group
- California billionaire pumps $1 million more into MA senate race Sunlight Reporting Group
- Stealthy super PAC avoids disclosing donors before Mass. special election Sunlight Reporting Group
- Pesticide industry would benefit from farm bill provisions Sunlight Reporting Group
- Will Bloomberg's wrath hurt senators who opposed gun bill? Sunlight Reporting Group
We’re happy to announce our new OpenGov Grants program to help you fulfill your vision of making government more transparent and accountable.
We know how challenging fundraising can be. You start an innovative project using technology to make government more open and accessible and halfway through -- you run out of money. At Sunlight, we’ve been there, and that's why we want to help you out. (Don't be misled by our name -- we’re not a foundation with an endowment, but rather a nonprofit that competes for grants just like any other 501 c3 charitable organization.) Indeed, we know how challenging fundraising can be.
With the financial support of Google.org, our new OpenGov Grants program will offer one-time grants in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 to help you achieve your vision of opening up government through creative innovations. OpenGov Grants can support anything from making a cool app to help residents understand how local government works, to creating an open source site to navigate state or local spending data to extending the capabilities of one of Sunlight’s own websites or apps. We’ll give priority to projects that develop open source software or data. (For details on what we will and won’t fund, please visit our FAQ.) Get inspired to apply by watching our video.
This weekend, patriotism gets a technical upgrade as civic hackers and open government advocates all across the U.S. will participate in National Day of Civic Hacking events. At Sunlight, we've witnessed (and encouraged!) the growth of the community of civic hackers, and are proud to sponsor and participate in several events this weekend.
Will we see you there?
Here’s an appeal for our readers: please help Sunlight spread the news of the great work civic hackers do as far and wide as possible by voting for our storytelling video in the Looking@Democracy contest organized by the Illinois Humanities Council with support from the MacArthur Foundation. (Voting ends May 16.)
We couldn’t wait to tell this (previously) untold story through a short video to demonstrate how the nascent movement of civic hackers are creating apps and tools using open government data to make their communities better. These men and women are equipped with laptops, open data and creative ideas to positively reconstruct the way we relate with government.
All hail Jon Stewart and those clever Daily Show writers for very adeptly (and hilariously -- though not in a very safe for work way) reporting last night how quickly and quietly Congress and President Obama combined forces to gut major transparency provisions of the STOCK Act passed last year. In an election year, they rushed to pass this reform legislation (and garner public kudos for doing so), but now with less of a spotlight on their actions, they rushed to undo the bill.
Readers of our blog know that Sunlight's lobbyist, Lisa Rosenberg, has taken the charge to inform you about this as it happened nearly two weeks ago. As she put it, the Senate's action to approve the removal of STOCK Act transparency provisions was an epic failure on Thursday, May 11, especially since they did so invoking unanimous consent. Then the House followed suit and rushed the vote in mere seconds the next day, as most House members had already left Washington for recess. The House also completely lapsed on fulfilling their "read the bill" rule to wait three calendar days to deliberate on the legislation -- to, you know, actually give citizens time to know what their elected officials were voting on before it was a done deal. (This would have also given the press more time to inform Americans of these shenanigans.)
Calling all open government, journalism and data geeks. Please join Sunlight and friends in a bicoastal hackathon on the campuses of Stanford University and Columbia University on Feb 2-3, 2013. Registration is now open.
Together, we will tackle how to create apps and sites that show what 2012’s political spending spree will mean for policy in 2013 and beyond.
Do you write code or work with data? Do you want to learn how or enhance your skills? Join us to mine data for stories and visualizations that will help understand how money affects the issues that Congress and state legislatures will be taking up this year. Showcase your skills and knowledge and compete to win prizes.
What a year 2012 has been! We faced an onslaught of unprecedented amounts of political spending. In this post-Citizens United landscape, it was even harder to connect the dots and know who was paying for the campaigns and what they'll get in return. Dark money rained down, super PACs sprouted like mushrooms and negativity reigned all while our Congress experienced one of its least productive years, stalling meaningful reforms like the DISCLOSE Act.
But, all was not dark. During 2012, the beginnings of something very positive started to take root as the movement for online open government grew on a significant scale. This year, we launched a major global initiative, collaborating with transparency organizations to define best practices and norms for open government around the world. We joined more than 100 organizations in a Declaration on Parliamentary Openness to improve openness, transparency and citizen participation in the legislative process on an international scale.
To see all what we've accomplished this year, please watch our 2012 year-in-review video and share it with someone you know.
- our popular Politwoops, hailed by TIME magazine as one of the best websites of 2012 for creating a permanent record for tweets deleted by elected officials.
- Ad Hawk, our "Shazam for Political Ads" that earned the very cool rating of “Essential iPhone App of 2012” by Gizmodo.
- Scout, which alerts you on actions that federal regulators, Congress or your state legislature take on a specific bill or issue you care about.
2013 already promises to be an exciting year with new initiatives that will give you more opportunities to join us in shining sunlight on politics and government. If you want to be kept in the loop about these new developments -- and help us continue our nonpartisan research and tech development -- please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to the Sunlight Foundation today.
We won't be able to do it without you, so please stand with us to keep politics and our government transparent and accountable.
Thanks and best wishes for a happy new year!
$800 million and counting. That’s how much money has been spent just by outside groups so far this election season. There's no doubt that this will be the most expensive election yet. Tune into this week’s Political Money Weather Report for a quick recap the steady downpour of money: where it’s happening, and who’s behind it (when transparency laws allow for us to know) -- and what we don’t know.
If you haven’t already listened to This American Life’s episode, “Take the Money and Run for Office,” I encourage you to set aside 45 minutes in your busy life so you can listen to it uninterrupted. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling that goes far and beyond my most optimistic dreams for how long-form journalism can illuminate how money affects politics (and governance) in our nation. (Plus, this Brooklyn-born Woody Allen fan was especially delighted with the clever headline This American Life used, a play on one of Allen’s earliest feature films, “Take the Money and Run.”)
As Communications Director at Sunlight, I work nearly every day with reporters to better understand our work, how government works and how to follow the money in our elections to know who and what influences our elected officials. I can’t express to you how proud I was to hear how Sunlight’s Party Time site and on-going work helped inform the narrative expertly created by This American Life, Planet Money and NPR’s congressional team.
From the episode’s gripping intro of my own representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, pleading for donations to the deft editing of appropriate music clips to keep the story moving, they did a superb job in translating the wonky details to something any listener could understand. They went above and beyond to show how we can use data to create transparency around how members of Congress raise money and the impact their fundraising has on their policy work and relationships with lobbyists. We worked with NPR's teams in their reporting, and are thrilled their work is already elevating public dialogue about an issue Sunlight (and you, dear reader), has cared about for years. It is definitely worth listening to, reading and sharing with your friends.
This episode has also taught me patience - as a PR professional, that’s not something that comes to me naturally. Nearly four years ago, Sunlight launched Party Time, the first centralized, free site where anyone could monitor the fundraising circuit that keeps members of Congress flush with cash for their re-elections--a persistent activity that keeps lawmakers busy hobnobbing with lobbyists and donors morning, noon and night. While reporters instantly began citing Party Time’s data to provide context on their reporting on political fundraising, I longed for a feature-length news piece that would create the ‘a-ha’ moment needed to really bring home why understanding the site’s data matters.
The Federal Election Commission releases campaign finance disclosures months after the money is raised and cashed; Party Time collects information on fundraisers that are happening today—and next week, and in some cases months ahead. When we created it, we thought that even though it could never be as comprehensive as we’d want since we rely upon the kindness of political insiders to leak the invitations they receive [hint, anyone can upload an invite]. But we always hoped Party Time would prove to be a useful early warning system for tracking influence in Congress, especially since it is the only data source that provides real-time and prospective insight into the fundraising activities of federal candidates. It may not be a site that attracts a lot of online visitors, but it does document daily how members of Congress chase donors, proving to be a powerful, unique resource for disclosure where no disclosure is required by law.
And, with news accounts like This American Life’s episode, I hope more people become interested in tuning into how Washington truly operates and joining Sunlight in our work to continue to shine a light on it all.
This is our democracy, after all, not one just for the one percent.
**Graphic of Party Time data by Lam Thuy Vo, NPR | Planet Money
Are the PR flacks of the Obama administration against government transparency? If not, then why have some instituted media policies that effectively gag federal scientists, sometimes preventing them from informing the public via news media about federal scientific research, data and policies? (I suspect there are many government flacks who are frustrated by these policies, but must enforce them as part of their jobs.)
This week, Sunlight staff shared and discussed a damning article in the Columbia Journalism Review about a disturbing trend: federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are establishing guidelines for interacting with the press that subvert the role of their public affairs departments. My counterparts within government are now less likely to help reporters understand scientific data; instead, they serve as gatekeepers whose primary role seems to be to thwart the public’s right to know.
At first, I thought my co-workers at Sunlight reacted with a knee-jerk disdain for public relations work because the guidelines route press calls through a centralized communications team instead of letting journalists dial government scientists directly. But, reading the CJR report, which is informed by a survey of science, health and environmental journalists conducted by CJR and ProPublica, I realized these policies aren’t about ensuring consistency of message (unless you count silence as a message) and efficiency. They were about censorship.
It’s ironic that such policies stem from the White House’s efforts to ensure scientific integrity and public communication. This memo [PDF link, which is frustratingly an image PDF] states that such policies should allow for “openness and transparency with the media and the American people.”
But that’s not what’s happening, and that’s a shame as it tarnishes the reputation of other sound public relations professionals. (There are many of us, even in DC!) There's something to be said for having a good public affairs office that routes inquiries so that the agency is coordinating its messaging for accuracy and consistency. That's what we do here at Sunlight. Sure, there may be times when a reporter gets through to our spokespeople directly, who grant the interview and then tell my team about it. But for the most part, I try to ensure Sunlight’s Communications team is the first line of contact with reporters (and others), so that we can figure out who's the right person to help, what pertinent projects/blog posts we can promote to provide better context and, finally, make sure the interview happens on time. We also keep track of press inquiries to spot trends in what topics are gaining popularity (sometimes prompting us to coordinate research and post relevant updates to our blogs) and keep on top of who's interested in specific topics (so we can pitch to them in the future).
This is not the same thing as what CJR describes is happening now in the public affairs departmemts in agencies like HHS, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Drug Administration. And, as these are new media relations policies, they’re not a sign of bureaucratic business as usual. For example, CJR describes the obstructionism Felice Freyer, who chairs the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee, encountered in trying to get an interview for an article in The Providence Journal, where she has covered the medical beat since 1989:
Unsure which press officer to approach, she filled out the “Timely Response E-mail Form” on the agency’s website. Several hours passed with no response, so she called and spoke with a press officer. He suggested that Freyer e-mail her questions to him, which she did. Nothing. When she called again two days later, the press officer said he was waiting for a response from his superiors. He suggested that she resubmit her questions for a third time. She did, to no effect. Several more days passed and she sent yet another e-mail asking if she could expect answers, and if not, why. “At this point, all we can say is that the FDA is continuing to look into these cases,” the press officer replied.
[There’s more I could excerpt, but I highly encourage you to read the full CJR article instead.]
Sunlight’s Reporting Group journalists also often face the same deliberate impediments by administration public affairs officials. Just as the reporters surveyed in the CJR piece, they’re left hanging when requesting interviews, and after weeks (or even months!) of persistence, told they can only cite government officials on background. Citing unnamed sources hurts the credibility of journalism, which can be further compromised if later challenged to prove the truth of such unattributed statements. Likewise, Sunlight's own experiences in trying to obtain government information using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests reinforce the notion that the Obama administration has not lived up to its promise to be more transparent. So much for our ability to report and shine a light on the government in a timely fashion. (This also frustrates yours truly, who sees news cycles come and go, knowing we have a good analysis to inform the public debate that can’t be published and pitched because we can’t get the information we need out of the government.)
President Obama won the hearts and minds of many American voters with promises to open up government. His administration made initial strides to deliver on that promise, establishing policies like the Open Government Directive and making government data available online for anyone to access on Data.gov. The thing is, you can’t just report on data in a vacuum. It needs to be explained and contextualized by experts. And those experts are being muzzled by policies that reek of obstructionism and an outdated culture. These policies likely prevent the administration’s PR flacks from helping to get the word out on news that would even make the administration look good. It’s as if the public affairs departments have forgotten they serve the public interest -- let’s not forget it’s our taxes that pay for their salaries.
We can’t stand for this. If you’re in DC, I encourage you to RSVP right now for an event this coming Monday at the National Press Club that will focus on this precise issue organized by the National Press Club, CJR, the Society for Environmental Journalists, Association of Health Care Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. And, if you’re a journalist, I urge you to cover this topic. Besides the groups listed above, there are many others working to ensure scientific integrity like the Union of Concerned Scientists and government transparency. Our media policy is simple: contact our Communications Manager Liz Bartolomeo or me (gab at sunlightfoundation dot com). We pick up our phones and reply to emails promptly, promise!