As the director of our ongoing mini-documentary series OpenGov Champions I am pleased to see that Homicide Watch DC, one of our Champs, have met their Kickstarter fundraising goal to keep their project alive while founders Laura and Chris Amico are fulfilling academic interests in Boston. Laura has a Nieman-Berkman fellowship in journalism innovation at Harvard for the coming academic year. They reached their goal of $40,000 4 days before the deadline. As of writing this, they have exceeded it with donations from more than 1,000 individual backers.
It is such a great testimony to how much the different communities in Washington, D.C. value their efforts to open up court data on the city’s violent crime. For weeks, my Twitter feed has been filled with pleas from across town to contribute to their Kickstarter project so they can hire a reporter to keep Homicide Watch following the full cycle of every homicide in D.C. through the justice system. I saw Laura and Chris after they had just launched the Kickstarter bid, and Laura told me she felt torn about moving to Boston with the uncertain future of the project, while the community on the site was pleading her to keep going. There is a real need for the site that fills the information gap around homicide in D.C.
Sunlight supported Homicide Watch DC by donating footage I had shot for the OpenGov Champ video to be used in their Kickstarter video. We are very happy for Laura and Chris to have met their goal, and wish them much success in their future endeavors!
As Sunlight’s Video production Director it is my delight to be producing an ongoing video series called OpenGov Champions, featuring citizens who take action in their own ways to open up, or as in this case, contribute to, government data.
I was especially excited to go to Brooklyn, NY to film this episode in which we showcase Liz Barry from Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) and their grassroots mapping efforts. Theirs is a unique way to work with and contribute to open government data. I had watched Liz’s TED talk about the mapping they did in 2010 of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Their maps were the only high resolution images available at the onset of the spill and spread all over the world media because access to airspace was restricted and planes could not capture aerial photos using traditional methods. It all had started with Jeffrey Warren in MIT and others who were experimenting with new ways to create high resolution maps using low cost, DIY technology like kites, balloons and cheap digital cameras. When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, they saw the opportunity to help by mapping the scope of the disaster. That’s when Liz met them and jumped right in, helping with logistics and connecting people with boats and crews. In my mind there is a rock star quality to this kind of opengov data work. And they have indeed gotten a lot of fame for their work and were a Knight News Challenge winner in 2011 among other things.
Liz has been with Public Lab (as it’s often abbreviated) as Director of Urban Environments ever since. Her goal is to empower citizens to take on their own investigations using DIY scientific methods. Anyone can -- and many people now have -- use their open source methods to make maps of all kinds of environmental, social or cultural phenomena all around the world where governments have not gathered geospatial or other data in high enough resolutions, or in some cases, like in the Czech Republic, were actively trying to hide damage done to their national forests.
Liz has worked her whole life in widely varied projects that all share the goal to enable citizens to participate in and improve upon their urban environments. Her past projects include starting an urban youth-led farm, encouraging neighbours to talk to each other by organizing events in a Bryant Park that thousands attended, to designing new cities for a company she worked for. More recently she has been combining technology and open data with a lot of hours spent outside on foot or on bicycle, whether slugging through rough terrain or on the streets of Brooklyn.
It was more than a 100 degrees with jungle humidity the day we met with Liz and some other activists who work on the Gowanus Canal project in Brooklyn. And yet these people were out there, flying up kites, documenting the watershed around the heavily polluted canal, as they do in all seasons: through mud and rain in fall, snow and slush in the winter, the sunshine and heat in spring and summer. They do all this mapping in order to get the full picture of the life of the canal throughout the year and to find out how the rehabilitation efforts, namely building a park around the edges is going, which plants are thriving and which are not, and to find and document sources of ongoing surface pollution like trucks doing illegal oil changes. Even though the Environmental Protection Agency has declared the canal a Superfund site and have already done a survey of the deeper contamination issues on the canal, as Eymund Diegel, one of the grassroots mappers, points out, unlike the concerned residents of the neighborhood like himself, they are not there every day, documenting the smaller scale, subtler issues that all contribute to the trash and chemicals creeping into the canal. Residents who go canoeing and spend time around the canal are invested in the improvement of the watershed in a totally different level. Eymund wants his kids to be able to come to the canal and learn about different kinds of fish, birds and plants instead of the trash currently floating around in the water.
Liz has some of these maps created by Public Lab’s citizen scientists on the walls of her apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They are even more impressive online where you can zoom into the details: the ones from the Gulf Coast incident have 8000 pixels to cover the same area that would be captured in one single pixel in the daily MODIS satellite imagery provided by NASA. You can clearly see individual birds and plants and how the oil is making landfall, leaking through the barriers that were supposed to keep it out. In many areas these grassroots maps have actually been incorporated into Google Maps, giving them a real detail boost as they are a hundred times bigger in resolution.
The Gowanus Canal is just one of many examples of projects like this cropping up around the world. Public Lab conducts trainings and offers starter kits and free, open source software for people to use so that they can easily set up their own investigations and make maps in their own areas. (Our Associate Video Producer Solay Howell got to film one of those trainings in Brooklyn the day after our Gowanus adventure where they made solar balloons that require no helium.) Anyone can join, start conducting their own research, collaborate with others and add their findings to their Data Archive. Liz is particularly interested in increasing interchange between this data and open government data.
What a great example of OpenGov Championship: enabling citizens and governments to work together to gather data and put it to use to improve our own environments.
Bill Clinton famously tried to claim he hadn’t lied about his relationship Monica Lewinsky by saying, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.” Newt Gingrich similarly contorts the English language by claiming “I was never a lobbyist.” Perhaps Gingrich’s claim depends on what the meaning of the word “lobbyist” is. If it is the loophole ridden, easily evaded legal definition in the Lobbying Disclosure Act that allows power brokers to avoid registering as lobbyists if they spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying, then maybe, maybe, Gingrich can claim with a straight face that he was not a lobbyist. But if common sense and Miriam Webster are applied, to lobby means, “to conduct activities aimed at influencing public officials and especially members of a legislative body on legislation.” Under that definition, there can be no doubt that Gingrich was a lobbyist, even if he didn’t fill out the paperwork.
The New York Times today correctly notes that people of Gingrich’s stature never register as lobbyists. It’s time to change that. Former members of Congress who trade their political connections for paychecks must be required register and report as lobbyists so that the public knows who is paying them and what positions they are advocating. Sunlight has long supported legislation that would strengthen the definition of lobbyist by eliminating the 20 percent loophole. The law should be clear. Former members of Congress should not be able to call themselves “consultants,” “strategic advisors,” or “historians,” while taking money from corporate clients to advance their causes on Capitol Hill. They are lobbyists.
Anti-lobbyist barbs will continue to fly this election season because they win easy political points. But instead of accusations and denials, name calling and obfuscation, it’s time for real reform that will capture all who lobby and impose much needed accountability on the system.
It seems the Obama administration has decided the time has come to once again flex its ethics muscles. The Office of Government Ethics announced rules that would extend a lobbyist gift ban to all government employees. The Office of Management and Budget issued guidelines to executive branch agencies to prohibit them from allowing lobbyists to sit on federal boards and commissions.
Generally, we like to applaud the administration for making strides to address influence peddling in Washington, but there comes a point where baby steps simply aren’t big enough to reach the heights necessary to really clean up Washington.
It is long past time for this administration to stop focusing on the low-hanging fruit and take the initiative to address the real and dangerous avenues of influence in our political system. Where should they start? How about with a long dormant executive order that would disclose hidden money given by federal contractors to influence elections? The administration has had ready, since at least April, an executive order that would require disclosure of dark money contributions funneled through shadow campaign organizations. The Chamber of Commerce and its allies in Congress objected to the draft executive order when it was leaked and the administration seems to have given up on it.
And where is the president on the opaque Super Committee? When he signed the law (negotiated in secret) creating the powerful deficit cutting committee, he failed at the time to insist that the bill include a single provision requiring the committee to operate in the sunlight. Now that there are legislative proposals that would correct that omission by requiring disclosure of campaign contributions and special interest lobbying meetings, the administration has remained silent rather than encouraging speedy passage of the law by Congress.
Finally, there is the whole new specter of unlimited secret corporate money infiltrating elections as a result of the Citizens United. The president came out forcefully against the decision. But when the DISCLOSE Act died in Congress, the administration did not come out in support of a streamlined disclosure-only bill. In fact, just the opposite. Administration cohorts and allies started up their own super PAC to solicit funds from the deepest pockets to pay for ads designed to help with the president’s re-election.
That’s what the administration hasn’t done to address dark money in politics. So what about what it is doing? Are the baby steps going to make a difference? Maybe. But we have to ask whether transparency wouldn’t be a less draconian, more effective way of addressing potential avenues of influence in the executive branch. For example, rather than banning lobbyists from federal boards and commissions, while still permitting bank CEOs, oil executives and labor bosses to sit on those boards, wouldn’t it be better if there were more disclosure of myriad financial interests of everyone on a federal advisory board? And on that OGE gift ban, will non-lobbyist lobbyists be able to make their case while nibbling finger food at conferences with executive branch employees, while lobbyists who register and report are shut out of the process? And while we are at it, does the administration think so little of its executive branch employees that it believes they can be bought for the price of a cheese square on a toothpick and a glass of cheap chardonnay?
The administration’s baby steps would look less like cynical ploy to appear strong on ethics if they were coupled with at least some effort to acknowledge the big picture and the big money that is infecting our political process. It’s time for the administration to grow up.
That lobbyists are influencing Super Committee members is a “dog bites man” story. Corporate lobbyists are eager to earn their hefty retainers by convincing members to save their clients from the chopping block. The real news would be if the Super Committee members disclosed to the public the names of those lobbyists, the clients they represent, and which particular government programs, subsidies or grants the lobbyists want to save.
Sunlight has called for the Super Committee to adopt H.R. 2860, the Deficit Committee Transparency Act, a bill that would require Super Committee members to report, in real time, when they meet with special interests. We also called for Super Committee members to take the simple step of voluntarily reporting their meetings with special interests.
It’s disheartening, to put it mildly, that calls for Super Committee transparency have so far met with a collective shoulder shrug from the very members of the committee who have been given unprecedented power over the nation’s purse strings. Perhaps they are suffering from a raging case of hubris—believing themselves immune from the persuasive powers, not to mention campaign contributions, of corporate special interests. They have demonstrated a complete unwillingness to make their meetings with one another transparent. It is no wonder they want to keep their meetings with special interests secret as well.
But what about their colleagues—the 523 members of the House and Senate whose power was diminished the minute the Super Committee was convened? Why have the appropriations committee chairs and budget committee members, the fiscal hawks and the champions of the social safety net complacently allowed secrecy to become the modus operandi for the Super Committee? They should be outraged that the Super Committee is doing its work behind closed doors. But instead of demanding accountability from their colleagues, they are quietly acquiescing. Only five members of the House have cosponsored the Deficit Committee Transparency Act, and not a single senator has stepped up to even offer the bill in the Senate.
Perhaps they don’t want to offend their colleagues on the Super Committee. Perhaps they hope, if the Super Committee model becomes the norm, to someday also wield extraordinary power in the dark. Or perhaps they are so accustomed to the way Washington does business—with corporate, moneyed special interests having access and influence while the rest of us are shut out of the process—that they don’t even recognize the problem.
It’s time they open their eyes. Members of the House should cosponsor H.R. 2860. Members of the Senate who claim to believe in transparency should introduce the bill. All should call on Super Committee members to demonstrate responsibility and accountability and disclose every meeting they or their staff take on super committee issues.
The drumbeat continues for the twelve members of the Committee on Deficit Reduction to step up and match their newly acquired power with a new-found commitment to transparency. Today, more than a dozen organizations joined Sunlight on a letter to Super Committee members, urging them to voluntarily disclose the campaign contributions they receive from now until the committee completes its work. Just as important, the groups call for members to disclose information about the special interest meetings Super Committee members take while serving on the committee.
The letter noted that failure to ensure transparency of these fundamental avenues of influence will reinforce the public’s mistrust of the deficit reduction process and risk delegitimizing the Committee’s work.
The Committee’s efforts to make its work transparent by creating a website and making some meetings public only go so far. Real access and influence come from large campaign contributions and when special interests meet with members to plead their case. Yet nothing will be disclosed about either lobbying or campaign contributions until well after the committee makes its recommendations. Too late, in other words, for the public to understand or respond to money and access--factors that may play an oversized role in the decision making process of super committee members.
Already the public, as well as members of Congress who do not serve on the Super Committee, are at a disadvantage. The committee has begun working to find ways to make enormous cuts to defense and social spending—cuts that will affect every one of us. Yet there is no disclosure of who is asking the committee members for help or who is writing large checks to committee members. The Committee’s work is too important for secrecy to be an option.
So, you see, Governor LePage “[does] not have nor ever had a business advisory council” because the people wouldn’t let him make this or any commission -- sorry, council -- that would be exempt from the state's Freedom of Access law. LePage claimed that he needed this exemption to account for "candid conversations” with people who aren’t public workers:
"There's no secrecy here," LePage said. "If they want to do it on the steps of the Blaine House, I'm fine with it too. But some of these people want to be frank and honest and open and they don't want to be exposed to the same scrutiny and exposure that we see every day."
When we wrote our Open Letter in March, Governor LePage’s advisory council was still on the table. The Executive Order for its creation has since been put on hold -- but not rescinded. Perhaps the Governor could review the text of his EO and get back to us...Or, you can help remind him. Click here to check out our Open Letter and have a candid chat with Governor LePage.
Last week, a few Sunlighters and I journeyed to Salt Lake City, Utah to do something -- er, many things -- that we usually don’t do. For one, we definitely don’t walk into swanky hotels (like the Grand America) followed by about 40 people, many of whom are wearing shirts that say -- “WE DEMAND #OPENGOV” -- and attempt to speak with the governors staying there.
Our trip to the Grand America was driven by you -- especially if you’re a reader from the state of Utah. In March, inspired by events in the Beehive State, we wrote an open letter to governors (which you can see here) calling out the trend of governors playing tacit and overt roles in rolling back transparency legislation across the country. We said that, if you signed, we would deliver your letters to the National Governors Association (NGA). Thousands of you responded.
We went to Utah because the NGA went to Utah: July 15th was the first day of the NGA’s annual meeting, which just happened to be hosted in Salt Lake City this year. That same morning, Sunlight, in coordination with a coalition of Utahan open government activists and civic leaders, addressed the NGA in a press conference on the steps of the Scott Matheson Courthouse, a mere two(ish) blocks from the Grand America Hotel, the convention’s location.
The press conference featured statements from Maryann Martindale of the Alliance for a Better Utah, Linda Petersen of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, Sherilyn Benion of the League of Women Voters of Utah, Representative Brian King of Utah State Senate, Sunlight’s own Gabriela Schneider and yours truly. We stood with a crowd of about 50 others as we reviewed not just our “Open Letter to Governors,” asking for the rollbacks of transparency legislation to cease, but also the developments that have happened in Utah. (You can get a picture of how our press conference went down below. To watch the full event, check out the video at the end of this post.)
THE UTAH SPRING
HB 477. Those letters and numbers may or may not seem familiar to you, but if you live in the state of Utah, they’re infamous. HB 477, aka House Bill 477, is a piece of legislation that nearly derailed Utah’s public information law this past March.
Utahans love their GRAMA -- that is, the Government Records Access and Management Act, which HB 477 overturned -- and with good reason: GRAMA was the only law in the country that gave public access to state legislature records. (Most freedom of information (FOI) laws don’t apply to the legislative branch; our federal FOI Act, for example, only applies to federal agencies...) It was hailed by journalists and concerned citizens, activists and investigators. And when the state senate moved suddenly to repeal the law, people reacted.
And I don’t just mean they tweeted.
I mean that people got off the couch, out the door and stood outside the state capitol. You’ve heard of the Arab Spring? Well, this was the Utah Spring. Winter Thaw, even. People waking up to the value -- the personal value -- of open government legislation and taking action. Quang Dang, of SaveGRAMA.org was one of these people. Dang says he had never been active in politics before he became interested in advocating for his public records laws. He had seen how powerful the Internet could be in changing government through the events in the Middle East, and when the HB 477 hit, he felt compelled to act with that knowledge. When I asked him why he was motivated respond to the roll back of transparency laws in his state he looked confused.
“I don’t have a ‘motivation.’ I’m a concerned citizen. This is what I’m supposed to do.”
Citizen action and coordination didn’t just repeal HB 477. It prompted the creation of a bipartisan working group composed of members of new and old media, citizens, lawmakers and staff to review GRAMA and make suggestions for updating the legislation to meet multiple interests -- governed and governing alike.
In light of all this, it would be hard to think of a better state in the Union for the NGA to have picked to host its conference this year, at least from the POV of a group of activists looking to make a statement about the popular importance of state-level transparency legislation. Sure, Governor Gary Herbert’s involvement in the transparency rollbacks amounted to little more than pen strokes -- one to sign HB 477 into law and one to repeal it -- but those pen strokes have immense consequences. And complacency in turning over open government laws is just as bad as pushing for them to be put into place.
THE OPEN LETTER
Although we organized the press conference, it wasn’t the Sunlight show. In fact, our presence there was to highlight two things: (1) that the open government rollbacks Utah has been fighting for months are not unique to Utah (we’re looking at you, Other 49 Governors of the US of A) and (2) that citizen response to transparency rollbacks aren’t “idle threats.” (We follow through.) The majority of the time was devoted to listening to Utahans speak about the progress that has been made and the work and vigilance required to see that progress through. To learn more about Utah and to get some inspiration for thinking about your home state, I encourage you to listen to their full statements in the video below.
The press conference ended with energy, not anger. Our presence was never meant to be an assault on the governors or the National Governors Association, but rather, an invitation. In the weeks leading up to our trip and the conference, we’d been in contact with the NGA three separate times, requesting information about the schedule (turns out, it’s private!), permission to deliver the open letters and to alert governors to the opportunity to address the crowd. The response was a polite, but firm version of, “No, but have you considered emailing each governor’s office?”
We told you we’d deliver your letters to NGA, so, at the end of the press conference, nearly 10AM on a Friday morning, we took that morning stroll I mentioned earlier. I imagine we were quite the sight for the swarms of security hovering around the entrance of the Grand America: a merry, but calm, band of opengov-ers, strolling right through the front door of the hotel, weaving down the lush hallways to get to the registration table for the NGA meeting. Needless to say, they were not pleased to meet us and did not take the "letters" (USB cards!) that we had in hand. Instead, they asked us to leave.
We did. But we didn’t leave those USB cards behind. We mailed them. It took a few more days than I expected (the perils of wrangling envelopes!), but soon, every governor’s office in the USA will receive a copy of the open letter and the signatures of those who support this petition.
At the podium last Friday, Linda Petersen of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, and well-known leader in the fight against HB 477, declared that in delivering the letter with us, her organization and the individuals and others gathered that day were reiterating the statement that defined the Utahan defense of GRAMA:
“No more. Bring the work out into the sunlight and let us judge for ourselves.”
Keeping public information accessible to the public -- free, open and online -- is critical to any system of government accountability. The “Open Letter” that we brought with us to Utah and that will soon land on the desks of governor’s (staff) all around the country isn’t a panacea that will ensure that public information remains open from here on. But, signing that letter and demanding the security of our right to know -- our free access to information -- is a necessary first step in securing greater wins in government transparency. We can’t expect government officials to act in our best interests if we don’t define what we value, how we want to be governed or what legislation we need to be better citizens.
In the few months since we wrote the Open Letter, some states have seen change for the better and new states have had change for the worse. You can read more about these developments here, but that’s not all you can do. You can also call your governor. At http://sunlightfoundation.com/openletter, we’ve made it easy for you to connect with the leader of your state. Take a page from the activists in Utah and realize that by telling your governor that the kind of government you want is one that’s open in practice -- not just in promise -- you can have an impact.
As mentioned earlier, the open government movement made major strides today -- when together with the Participatory Politics Foundation, we launched OpenGovernment Minnesota. This brings the total number of states covered by the OpenGovernment initiative, to six. As we continue to expand this project to include more states, we take note of individual citizens who are being proactive about tracking the legislature in their states. By so doing, we recognize that active citizen participation in government is the key to prompting change and increasing accountability. And we support this recognition by building tools that empower the public to see how their government is functioning. But our role can not simply be reduced to tracking bills. We need to be engaged in the rule making process and reinforcing Public Records Laws and Open Meetings Laws is one such way of doing that. All the while ensuring that the legislative system is not given "special treatment".
Two years ago, the legislature in Bacon Hill, Massachusetts managed to exempt itself from
the requirements of the Public Records Law and the Open Meetings Law -- using
a sweeping ethics reform bill. Now, there are four bills that have been introduced
to subject the legislature to the open meetings law. Media and technology lawyer
Robert Ambrogi, is challenging the lawmakers to pass these laws if they are true
supporters of transparency. Will these bills see the light of day, unlike their
predecessors that went no where? Read more on the media law blog.
A new bill that will make all executive orders issued by the office of the mayor of New York City available on line, has been passed. Currently, the orders can only be accessed via requests through the Freedom of Information Law. Richard Yeh shares that open government advocates are applauding the bill because of the transparency and openness it will create. Legislative text from the bill shows that all memorandum of understanding and similar documents will be available on a government website starting April 1, 2012. See what else the bill says on the WNYC News blog.
Public information from the governor’s office in Louisiana will soon be accessible to the public. A new bill that
will significantly relax the state’s public records law by making all of the Governor’s documents including
those related to budgetary issues, public, has been introduced. At the moment, the state is using Act 495 enacted in 2009, which exempts the governor from disclosing any material considered to be under a “deliberative process”. Chad Rogers is sure this bill will go a long way in restoring confidence in the public. Read more about how the bill will change Louisiana from being the only state that exempts the governor's records from disclosure on chadrogers.net
The Cleveland Coalition, together with several open government supporters including the Sunlight Foundation, will be joining forces for the Transparency Action Plan Summit (TAP) to take place in Cuyahoga Ohio on July 29-30. The first of its kind in the region, the summit will bring together like-minds to discuss transparency initiatives that will make the county a leader in government transparency and public engagement. For more of the action plan details, head on over to Cleveland Coalition.
We're big fans of CityCamp here at Sunlight. It's very cool to watch the process of government opening before your eyes, as these local unconferences bring together city officials, activists, journalists and developers to make real change in their communities.
So I was pumped to get this message from Jay Nath in San Francisco:
CityCamp San Francisco 2011: Ideas and Action is shaping up to be a great unconference event on June 18 at 1 So. Van Ness, but it won't be the same without you. If you've already registered, we hope you'll do so today, and if you already have, please tell your friends. You can register free through Eventbrite here.
CityCampSF focuses on innovation for municipal governments and community organizations. We'll have discussion and action sessions around sustainability, health, digital engagement and much more. Bring your best ideas and action!
TechCentralSF is hosting a pre-CityCampSF mixer and panel on “Gamification for Good” on June 17. You can get advance discount tickets here.
We're happy to have TechCentralSF as an organizing sponsor, along with GovFresh, NationBuilder and Third Thursdays SF. Media sponsors include Gov 2.0 Radio, Shareable and OpenSF, and fiscal sponsors are Tropo, Blockboard and FirmStep.