Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.
Adam Green is the CTO of UniteBlue.com -- a social network for progressives based on Twitter. UniteBlue connects and organizes political activists on a national and state level. You can reach. Adam at email@example.com.
One of the great challenges for political activism in each of the 50 state legislatures is providing timely information on bills as they move through the legislative process. The data provided by the Sunlight Foundation Open States API is comprehensive, but combing through it to find the limited number of bills that activists have the time to focus on can be overwhelming. I have found over 88,000 bills in the current session alone. We are now developing an early warning system at UniteBlue.com that can assist our volunteers in filtering this information flow down to a manageable level.
While the entire process will take months to complete, in this guest post I’d like to propose a triage model that can be used as a first step. Triage is the medical model used in hospital emergency rooms and during disaster responses. A high flow of patients is screened using certain “signatures” to determine which ones need to be seen first, such as blocked airways or dangerous vital signs. The process of triaging the high flow of bills coming from the Sunlight data will follow a similar model.
At Sunlight we make no secret about using technology to make government more accountable and drive the transparency message further. And we are not alone. Several non profits are embracing technology as a way of engaging their audiences on the issues they care about. Last week, I attended a roundtable on internet advocacy hosted by Care2 in DC. Speaking on the panel were Adam Mordecai from Upworthy, Beth Becker from Progressive Congress, Riche Zamor from 4Site Studios and Suzanne Turner from Turner Strategies. The roundtable was moderated by our friend Alan Rosenblatt from the Internet Advocacy Center.
Check out a recap of the roundtable in the video below:
A core mission of the Sunlight Foundation is to enable citizen participation through technology and lower the bar to access government. Through our free tools we're constantly looking for ways to produce a more transparent and accountable government. Today, we're proud to introduce Scout, a tool that allows you to create customized keyword alerts to notify you whenever issues you care about are included in legislative or regulatory actions. This project embodies our goals as an organization: anyone can now freely get the immediate access to information that previously required significant organizational capacity in your state capital or Washington, D.C.
Start by entering a keyword or phrase you would like to get updates about. Scout then saves your subscriptions and sends notifications via email or text message whenever the subscribed issue or bill is talked about in Congress, mentioned in the Federal Register or comes up in state legislation. Through your profile you can create as many alerts as you'd like and group them by tags with the additional option to make them public for others to follow your issues. Users can also complement a Scout subscription by adding optional external RSS feeds, such as press releases from a member of Congress or an issue-based blog.
One of our inspirations to create Scout was to help track when new exemptions were proposed to the Freedom of Information Act. We created a collection of alerts on the topic and anyone interested in the issue can get alerts along with our staff.
Not only has Scout proved useful in tracking issues in Sunlight's policy advocacy, but we've already used it to help change proposed laws. We used our alert for the phrase "552 of title 5," created to track newly proposed exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, to alert expert allies on Freedom of Information about an overly broad exemption. Very quick work among a variety of staff, especially OpentheGovernment.org, led to a sign-on letter, thoughtful feedback to Congressional staff, and eventually, a much better bill. We conceived of Scout with just this kind of work in mind. Our assumption is that timely, focused updates on specific issues can help public scrutiny lead to better policy. With the recent FDA bill's FOIA exemption, this was certainly the case.
Our rapid alert system is built on a foundation of strong data including our Capitol Words site that indexes the Congressional Record, legislative text and summary information from GPO and GovTrack, full text search of bills in all 50 states (a first) from our Open States project, notices on upcoming floor debates and regulatory filings included in the Federal Register. It's an ambitious undertaking, but we're excited to bring together all these important sources to provide you the most comprehensive alert system yet.
Visit Scout to watch a video about how the tool can work for you and please join us on Tuesday, June 26 for a webinar about Scout from 1 to 2 pm ET. The session will cover basic skills such as search terms and bill queries as well as advance functions such as tagging subscriptions, merging outside RSS feeds and curating search collections.
This morning, the Senate approved an amendment from Senator Leahy that preserves FOIA in the FDA Safety and Innovation Act. The original language in the S.3187, Section 708 would have allowed the FDA to deny the public access to information relating to drugs obtained from a federal, state, local, or foreign government agency, if the agency has requested that the information be kept confidential. Senator Leahy’s amendment allows the FDA to obtain and protect drug inspection and investigation information from foreign governments under clear guidelines and with delimited protection time.
The original language was opposed in a letter by the openness and accountability community. Thanks to the hard work of Senator Leahy and his staff, and the collaboration of the HELP Committee leadership, the request from FDA for a carte blanche to withhold information from the public and Congress was denied. At the same time, the legitimate concerns regarding foreign governments were appropriately addressed.
Thanks to our colleagues in the openness and accountability community for your hard work on this.
Patrice’s colleague Amy Bennett sent a follow-up email that explained exactly how Scout was a part of this:
[W]e’d be remiss if we didn’t give credit to the Sunlight Foundation’s latest legislative language tool, Scout (http://scout.sunlightfoundation.com/), for alerting us to the existence of the original provision. You can use the tool to set up email alerts for key phrases or follow a particular bill. It covers Congress, regulations across the whole executive branch, and legislation in all 50 states.
We use Scout to get updates anytime Congress is considering expanding what can be withheld under the federal FOIA by setting up an alert that searches bills in Congress for the term “552 (b)” (thanks to a reform written into law last year, all new b3 statutes must cite FOIA – USC 552).
Obviously, an email alert can only go so far. It took the work of Patrice and Amy, like-minded organizations like Public Citizen, and members of Sen. Leahy’s staff to catch this problematic provision and correct it.
But that good work was made possible by the tip-off that Scout provided. It’s a great example of technology lowering barriers to participation in the democratic process, which ultimately results in better governance — and that idea is exactly why Sunlight exists.
We ask that the District make public the programming and granting program budgets for Arts and Humanities support in the District, and encourage public input in any revisions of those programs.
Sunlight is one of 15 other local groups partnering with the DC Advocates for the Arts for this event because we support their call for budgetary transparency. If you’re a local and you’re interested in showing your support for open government in the District, please join us at the event tomorrow. At noon, we’ll be gathering in front of the John A. Wilson Building to hear from arts and transparency advocates -- and might event get to take in some surprise entertainment. I’ve posted a recap of the details below.
The open government movement (like most of the online world) is obsessed with “unconferences” -- meet-ups, of sorts, where the participants determine the content of and lead sessions around a pre-determined theme. When done right, it can be a powerful tool for building community.
Sunlight held its first unconference, TransparencyCamp, three years ago in an effort to get the diverse groups of people thinking about and working for government transparency together. From the conversations and problem-solving that took place there, we’ve seen the emergence of some incredible initiatives - take, for example, CityCamp.
This year, we want to go further. We want to focus on government transparency not just on Capitol Hill, but where you live. So, we need your help.
Never been to a TransparencyCamp or even an unconference before? Not a problem. We’re still interested in knowing what open government issues interest you, what you would want to get out of this sort of experience and how we can improve on the experiences you’ve had at similar events in the past.
TransparencyCamp 2011 will be open to people from across the country. We’re relying on your input to make it the best it can be.
Today, Sunlight is announcing a package of House Rules reforms for the upcoming 112th Congress that can help create the most open and accountable Congress in history. In addition to calling for leadership in Congress to pursue these reforms, we would like to hear your feedback on our recommendations.
This is big news for a number of reasons. The House Rules have enormous power in determining how all aspects of the U.S. House of Representatives functions as a legislative body. Examining the rules also gives us a chance to assert some of our signature reform efforts: from the 2007 Open House Project recommendations to the ReadtheBill.org and Transparency in Government Act reforms—as well as a lot of new ground.
Sunlight is calling for doubling the Office of Congressional Ethics budget; for all public ethics filings to be posted affirmatively online; for all non-emergency legislation to be posted online for 72 hours; and for a single database of all earmark information. We’re also calling for a public database of “Dear Colleague” letters; shoring up ethics rules; providing greater access to legislative data; and making all committee rooms wired for video, just to name just a few. To look at our recommendations in more detail, we've published a one page summary, in addition to an HTML and PDF version.
We’ve identified well over 60 reform opportunities and welcome your reactions and comments at the end of this post. We’ll be writing a great deal over the coming weeks about the individual reforms listed here, both the research it represents and the vision it presents for a transparent, accountable Congress.
Want to read more about how the next Congress can be better? You can read the full list of recommendations here or view our policy overview here.
I’m proud to present this independent research project by our summer intern Mike Liu. Mike looked at his home state of California, the recent Bell salary scandal and the need for transparency at a local level. - Nicko Margolies
When I first heard about the exorbitant salaries of top officials in Bell, California, my initial thoughts concerned college, not politics.
Last year I participated in student government as a freshman Senate mentee, working closely with student Senators in order to better understand university governance.
Though I obtained firsthand insight into effecting change on campus, many mentees and I left incredibly disillusioned by the lack of transparency and accountability in student government.
Both new and experienced Senators missed mandatory meetings on a whim. Furthermore, attendance at Senate committee meetings was painfully sparse: Senators often found themselves struggling to establish quorum, even when student organizations' budgets were on the line. This was particularly troubling, considering Senator salaries (compensation many students didn’t even know about) were based on nominal committee leadership and participation.
After a controversial and unproductive year, a new batch of Senators were elected and sworn in, leaving many unaddressed problems destined for repetition.
Reading the LA Times investigation, I couldn't believe the striking similarities between the Bell fiasco and what I had seen on campus.
The Bell scandal
In the relatively small, low-income town of Bell, City Council members' inflated salaries were safely hidden from the public eye. Year after year, Bell Councilmen received over $7,800 per month for sitting on boards of various agencies including the Community Housing Authority, the Surplus Property Authority, and, ironically, the Public Financing Authority.
What's worse, as the LA Times reported in July, these boards did close to nothing, holding meetings that sometimes lasted for as little as a single minute.
Though the corruption displayed in the Bell scandal is of an obviously different magnitude than the carelessness of the student Senate, they are both pieces of a far-reaching set of problems. Fueled by a lack of transparency and citizen participation, unaccountable leaders were given extra room to behave in an opaque and irresponsible manner.
In the case of Bell, corrupt officials went unchecked and unnoticed as they pocketed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of taxpayer dollars.
Outrage centered on bloated public officials is justified, but turning that energy into permanent solutions is the crucial next step.
Public equals online: salary edition
Last week, California State Controller John Chiang announced that cities would be required to disclose salary information online. This was a great step for local transparency in California, and having the state encourage financial disclosure at local levels is a promising sign.
However, it is ultimately up to individual cities to make sure that the data they are disclosing is both understandable and comprehensive.
Published data should include basic annual salary information as well as a detailed breakdown of benefits packages and other perks. An independent 2010 report [pdf] by Laguna Hills City Council Candidate Barbara Kogerman lists “obscure compensation factors,” which add to compensations while slipping past disclosure requirements. These benefits include “management incentives, deferred compensation, contributions to private retirement programs, insurance premiums […] auto expenses, moving expenses, payouts for unused sick or vacation leave […]” and others. Although some of these compensations are included in the annual salary, many are taken into account after retirement, effectively increasing pensions without being reflected in general salary reports.
Employment contracts for officials should also be posted in an easily accessible database and updated to reflect salary-boosting addendums and any other modifications as soon as they are implemented.
A useful, meaningful online record of city salary information will include a searchable, itemized, and consistently updated database of compensation factors available for public review.
A great example can be found at the Missouri Accountability Portal. As the Sunlight Reporting Group explained last week, the website is entirely automated, and salary information is updated in real time. In addition, contracts are displayed in detail and are fully searchable. Sites like this could be scaled down and used to keep track of local expenditures. In fact, counties could establish their own “accountability portals” so that each city has a consistent, useable framework for disclosing important data.
For more insight into local transparency, I turned to professor Raphe Sonenshein, political science chair at California State University, Fullerton. He informed me that California has a relatively expansive set of protections for transparency under state law. Although “local governments are absolutely required to comply […] what happens when they don’t?” asked Sonenshein. “That’s the Bell Case.”
Although Bell pushed the limits of non-transparency, their actions also illustrate the potential problems with California’s existing disclosure policies. Let’s look at how Bell dealt with two of California’s longest-standing pieces of transparency legislation: the Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The disclosure debacle
An LA Times article last week revealed that Bell withheld public records requests beyond “the time limit set by the state Public Records Act” without explanation.
Sonenshein experienced similar roadblocks when he tried to obtain a copy of the city charter. “The person who answered the phone said she’d be happy to fax me an application for a public records request,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
It’s ridiculous that citizens would have to jump through hoops to obtain records as basic as salary summaries during a salary scandal or the city charter of a charter city.
Bell City Council members similarly disregarded the Brown Act as they held secret meetings in the wake of the scandal. The extent to which private deliberations concerning salaries took place in the past remains unknown.
It was also through a discreet loophole that Bell City Council members inflated their salaries in the first place. A “little-noticed city ballot measure” to convert Bell to a charter city was approved during a special election. There was no real mention of the exemptions from salary regulations that such a change would cause.
The measure passed, receiving a total of less than 400 votes.
The Bell scandal reinforces the argument that California’s existing transparency laws don’t do enough on their own. Enforcement simply does not exist, and though most cities follow the rules, we know from this experience that relying merely on integrity is not enough.
A proactive commitment
Accountability is not simply releasing information in bulk. It’s also not passing nominal, unenforced legislation.
What real accountability requires is an active, honest effort from citizens and leaders. Steven Croley, a law professor at the University of Michigan, and new member of the Obama administration's Domestic Policy Council, wrote a blog post in 2007 that is relevant in this discussion:
“Government is open not just because it discloses information about what it has already done, but because it solicits citizens' input about what it is doing.”
While Croley is describing his vision for an open federal government, the same principle applies, perhaps even more appropriately, to local government. With everything more centralized and smaller-scale, maintaining a transparent system faces fewer challenges than anything on a state or national level.
Take the example of the special ballot measure that allowed Bell Council members to eliminate their salary caps. It’s undeniable that the public was left in the dark. Instead, though the use of town hall meetings and online outreach, changes to city legislature and policy should have been posted and discussed before a final vote went through.
In his post, Croley stated that federal agencies should adopt the attitude of “[telling] you before you ask” over “we’ll tell you if you ask.” This idea will certainly be at the center of a successful transparency movement.
Right now, local officials have an invaluable opportunity to be proactive instead of passive. A relevant solution to the inconsistency of the Public Records Act, for example, might be to establish a database where documents are uploaded and made public for future reference as they are requested. This system would create easy access to the most pertinent records while slowly establishing a comprehensive, accessible database free from red tape.
While it is the responsibility of government to operate transparently and with integrity, the impact of citizen engagement should not be understated. Within weeks after the Bell scandal broke, citizens banded together and effectively forced the resignation of its corrupt city officials.
But it shouldn’t take a looming scandal to start an accountability movement.
Citizen engagement has great potential to effect change, and for most people, local government might just be the most accessible place to take action.
One model example of a transparency movement is Illinois’ Local Transparency Project, which combines the expertise of the Illinois Policy Institute with local leaders fighting government opacity. The Local Transparency Project is an encouraging example of a successful grassroots effort and a great resource for citizen activists looking to organize and mobilize.
In addition, the Sunlight Foundation offers fantastic resources and a strong community for transparency advocates. A solid first step would be to join the Public=Online campaign as well as the Citizens for Open Government group. Sunlight is also producing a guide on how to do state level organizing and advocacy around transparency. Bring your community and concerns to the conversation.
Local government operates closest to the people, but it rarely receives the same attention enjoyed by the state or federal levels.
The Bell scandal proves, however, that though City Councils will never enjoy the celebrity of White House officials or pass billion-dollar legislation, corruption at home can still bear enormous consequences.
If we implement permanent transparency solutions at a local level, we’ll be on our way to a truly open government.
We can end the thankless hours of tedium forced upon our nation's brightest interns. We can bring to a halt the needless printing of reams and reams of paper. And yes, we CAN put computers to their proper use in the Senate.