Open Letter to the Obama Administration on How to Shine Sunlight


Dear Mr. President-Elect,
In your acceptance speech, you rightfully called on Americans to get ready to work to address the challenges that tomorrow will bring. All of us at Sunlight affirm to pitch in and work harder, and agree that we all have to look after each other. In that spirit, we offer advice for your administration on how to undo the culture of secrecy and transform the presidential administration into a transparent operation.

Your campaign embraced the Internet and engaged millions of Americans in unprecedented ways. Keep that momentum going. Your administration can make our government more open, more responsive, more accountable and thus more trusted by the people. But, how?

I asked several Sunlighters to sound-off about how they think the next administration should act to create greater government transparency. They represent a healthy cross-section of who comprises Sunlight: technology geeks, policy wonks, bloggers, journalists, optimists and pragmatists. Here’s their advice:

Bill Allison, senior fellow at Sunlight who loves to dig into government data to inform his investigative reporting on Real Time Investigations, says:

The Office of Government Ethics will collect personal financial disclosure forms for all the incoming political appointees of the new administration. These disclosures are supposed to demonstrate to the public that powerful executive branch officials have no personal conflicts of interest in the discharge of their duties. Yet these forms are not accessible online. The Obama administration should direct the Office of Government Ethics to post all the financial disclosure forms filed by its appointees online.

The Obama administration should also clarify its position on whether it will appoint individuals currently working as lobbyists to government positions. Should it choose to hire lobbyists, it should require a much higher level of disclosure from those lobbyists about their past work, including information on what legislation and policies they attempted to affect while on K Street, and whether, in the previous two years, they dealt directly with the Department, Office or Agency to which they have been appointed. All of this information should be available online.

Paul Blumenthal, whom our readers may know from his In Broad Daylight blog updates about Congress, says:

President-Elect Obama should stand by his word to change Washington by requiring further transparency in the lobbying process. While Obama may not allow some lobbyists to serve in certain positions in his administration – it is still uncertain how strict this policy will be – it is without a doubt that executive branch officials will be meeting with lobbyists, as will members of Congress and their staff.

The best option would be to immediately push for the passage of Section 4 of the Transparency in Government Act (published on ). This section mandates, among other things, monthly disclosure reports for lobbyists that will be required to include far more information than previously required. The new information would include listing every contact with a covered official, client support or opposition for all legislation lobbied on, earmarks lobbied for, and all public efforts (PR, advertising, grassroots outreach) to stimulate support or opposition.

Without this level of transparency for lobbyists, there is no way to ensure that actual change will come to the culture of Washington.

Greg Elin, chief data architect of Sunlight Labs, offers this advice:

I want President-Elect Obama to instruct every department to publish a Data Catalog on their Web site in the model of Washington, DC’s Office of the CTO, and to embrace Open Government Data Principles. I want high-resolution, GPS-enabled, full-featured mobile devices like the iPhone or Android standard issue to executive branch staff so they can work more efficiently—and we can make cool apps that matter. I want the White House Web site to be transformed into engaging citizens to work in our communities the same way the Obama campaign Web site engaged supporters to work in the campaign.

And I want to create my own transition Web site and policy agenda—just for me—to follow over the next four years to become a more perfect citizen.

Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs, wants to see the following:

1. I think the executive branch needs to start requiring electronic filings for oversight-based documents. The Foreign Agent Registration Act, for example, publishes its filings online, but the data set is relatively useless, as many of the filings are actually hand-written. Handwriting is not good for oversight—OCR scanners cannot usually read the characters, which make the filings impossible to search through or relate to one another.

2. I’d like to see the executive branch of government start out by making it easier to contribute ideas and code. I think there are legions of programmers out there that would love to help make government more effective with their skills, probably for free—but they can’t. The barriers to entry for participation are far too high to do that. It is time to tear those barriers down and let developers really help out. After all, President-Elect Obama has called on us to serve.

3. Setting up a Stack Overflow-type site for government would be extremely useful. Working with the executive branch has always been difficult, but what if the government opened things up to the community to help solve problems—even more, what if the government was able to ask the community to help it solve its problems?

Mike Klein, co-founder and chairman of Sunlight, shares his hopes:

I hope and expect that President-Elect Obama will keep his promise to institutionalize greater transparency throughout the federal government. He took a great first step before he ran for president by co-sponsoring the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (commonly referred to as the Coburn-Obama Act) that requires the Office of Management and Budget to put online information about all federal grants and contracts (now online at As President, he should, as he has promised, act more broadly to create government-wide transparency about what the government and those who seek to influence it are doing every day.

Online access to meaningful information is essential to re-engaging our citizens, to restoring trust and to empowering the mainstream media and bloggers as overseers. We have long had laws that purport to require disclosure, but typically these laws have required only episodic, opaque, delayed and fragmentary information. We should have online disclosure, about who is lobbying whom for what at whose behest, as well as who is seeking to buy influence with their contributions to campaigns and related charities. We need to have more timely disclosure of more complete information about the influencers and the influenced, and it needs to be filed and posted online in real time, so the citizenry can act to protect the public interests from the private interests.

Avelino Maestas, assistant managing editor of Congresspedia, wants to see the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) strengthened:

I’d like to see the FOIA process revamped. The current setup isn’t just bad for those requesting information, but also for those federal workers who process the requests. There are too many exceptions and loopholes, and those exceptions are too broad. Right now, agencies can hold up requests for years and fight the release of too much information. Citizens and journalists shouldn’t wait months to learn that what they requested is heavily redacted.

In the short term, agencies should be strongly encouraged to process their oldest cases first. However, what we need is a simpler system that is efficient for administration employees and actually works for citizens seeking the information.

Anupama Narayanswamy, Sunlight’s investigative writer who blogs at Real Time Investigations, says:

Here’s what I would like to see from the Obama adminstration:

1. Under the Bush administration, certain offices within the White House are no longer open to FOIA—the Office of Administration is an example. I would like the new White House to start by making FOIA once again applicable to those offices that were open to FOIA before Bush.

2. Obama’s adminstration should try and make available to the public and the media all documents which have to do with the financial bailout process. Right now, Treasury is making public contracts where entire sections are completely blacked out. How is the money being used, which companies are being hired by Treasury, where are they investing taxpayer money? All these and a lot more information is available in these documents, which should be released to the public without redaction.

Nisha Thompson, Sunlight’s organizer and outreach coordinator, who keeps us current on transparency blogging across the states with her Local Sunlight series, says:

I would like to see presidential signing statements online 72 hours before a bill becomes a law. I think it is fair for presidents to air grievances about legislation to the public instead of secretly when the president signs a bill into law.

I would also like to see more access to bloggers and citizen journalists in the presidential press corps. The president should be accountable to everyone, not just the mainstream media. Everyone should have access. With Internet technology, there is no reason the mainstream media should have exclusive access to someone that the country as a whole elected. Perhaps the president should consider creating a press corps of citizen journalists or add a few to the regular press corps.

James Turk, Web developer for Sunlight Labs, offers this sage advice:

The new president is inheriting a nation in a time of serious economic, international and environmental uncertainty. As the recent bailout shows, the size of the federal government will no doubt need to grow to meet the challenges that the country is facing. Historically, in times of crisis, power becomes more consolidated in the executive branch and thus more removed from public scrutiny. The Obama administration has a unique opportunity to challenge this conventional wisdom and ensure that the agencies and agendas of the new government have unprecedented levels of oversight. The problems we face as a country are difficult and deserving of new and experimental approaches, my greatest hope is that the Obama administration commits to a philosophy of encouraging innovation in thinking.

Hopefully, the commitment to civic engagement and understanding of the benefits of technology seen in the campaign continue. Proposals like posting legislation online before it is law can help the populace engage directly as was seen with the various bailout bill proposals. The new administration should also experiment with development of a government site encouraging citizens to discuss issues the same way that they were encouraged to talk to their neighbors throughout the election.

Additionally, it would be beneficial to have something akin to a directive encouraging the executive agencies to experiment with new technology and engage the communities they serve on how they could best use the internet. It is past time for the federal government to rethink how it stores and shares the data it accumulates—instead of having to ask for specific databases that are technically public but difficult to access due to layers of bureaucracy coupled with outdated technologies, it is time for many of these data sets to exist online in a uniform location for both official and public use.

Sunlight’s Party Time director Nancy Watzman, who is always a bit tongue-in-cheek, offers this advice:

As the Sunlight Foundation’s Party Time “hostess,” I spend much of my time reporting on invitations to private fundraisers for lawmakers thrown by lobbyists and special interests. Unfortunately, I’m not invited to these parties—the barbecues and fish fries, the weekends in Vegas and ski weekends—and neither are most of us. Yet, it is at these schmooze fests that relationships are developed that can make a difference when it comes time for a lawmaker to decide whether to oppose or champion a bill, sponsor and earmark or vote one way or the other. And these decisions affect all of us.

The best hostess gift the new administration could give me would be to make it possible for everybody to attend these parties. As a cyber-hostess I mean this figuratively, of course. First, the new administration should urge Congress to make transparent and accessible information about who goes to these parties now. We need campaign finance contribution information available more quickly, in more easily digestible form. (And yes, senators, it’s time to join the not-so-new century and file your campaign finance reports electronically.) Ditto information on lobbyists and whom they represent, earmarks and all legislative information.

Second, the new administration should open up the vast stores of information harbored by the executive branch. The administration should restore the presumption under FOIA that government information is public rather than it is not. Agencies should also make data on finances, health care, energy, safety and the environment—data financed by all of us—available in formats that make it easily accessible for the public. As it stands now, well-financed insiders can afford to buy expensive services that slice and dice these data which gives them an advantage most ordinary citizens don’t have.

Finally, the new administration should explore new ways that our elected officials can party with all of us. This means engaging with people directly through blogs, via twitter, and other social networking tools. Inviting us all to the party would change the culture of the way things are done in Washington. And if there is one thing the voters said clearly at the polls this week, it was that they wanted change.

From John Wonderlich, who spearheads our collaborative initiatives to open up Congress, the Open House Project and the Open Senate Project:

I’ll be watching closely to see how public disclosure can strengthen the rule of law. In particular, I’d like to see the Justice Department re-establish sensible policies regarding the legal policy memos that the Office of Legal Counsel writes for the administration. The administration can’t even be held to its own standards if Congress and the public can’t find out what those standards are.

I’d also like to see a revival of civic pride, which we should expect to have a strong digital component, since that’s where so much of our lives now play out. When citizens are welcomed as competent partners in governance, then government is far more likely to be competent itself.

We’re also facing a new situation in inter-branch coordination, where a tech-savvy campaign is going to become a (possibly) tech-savvy White House. I can’t wait to see what this will mean for policy communications between Congress and the executive branch, and also to see what new ideas might arise that we haven’t considered yet.

Over the coming weeks and months, Sunlight staff will share reviews of various transition recommendations for the new administration. Readers, what do you think? How do you think the 44th POTUS should help promote a more open, accountable government? Share your thoughts by commenting below.