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.

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  • david francis sr

    what going to happento seniors on low incomes who’sbincome can’t cover health care costs?



    December 11, 2008
    Las Vegas Nevada

    President Elect Barack Obama
    Transitional Team
    Washington D C 20270


    Dear President Elect Obama

    I did not vote for you, but I will “support” you as you follow the Rules of the Scriptures.
    Why I did not vote for you was because of the “adverse” publicity, which runs rampant
    and should NEVER be allowed. Politics “should not be a game” as it affects the lives
    Of people in our world. It should be a means of “sharing” what a person can legitimately do to help the world. False Advertising, Slanderous Commercials should be Outlawed
    and if broken, a penalty given. False and Slanderous Commercials create wrong images
    for innocent people, who really want to be of help.

    There should be only ONE PARTY…GOD’S PARTY that follows the Age Old Rules
    that have been Proven to be Accurate for over 2000 years! Parties in Government have
    Become OBSOLETE ! Until we can all come together with ONE MIND, ONE MOTIVE and to DO GOOD, none of it will Work!

    Please consider these ideas which seem to be sensible. I am on the “outside” looking in. Inside is “cluttered” with many vibrations, influence and verbiage, much of it WRONG!.
    There is ONE TRUTH and that Truth is the SAME, whether it is voiced by me, you or
    Another. Facts and Opinions are moveable and changeable, but TRUTH IS ABSOLUTE.

    I want to address the issue of Bail Out for the Big 3.

    PLEASE SAY “NO”! LET THEM FILE BANKRUPTCY! The world is in “transition” at this period in time. The Scriptures, the Book of Wisdom for the Wise and Prudent, tell us that “The wealth of the wicked is being transferred to the righteous”. Wicked means “twisted in thinking, not clear, not concise and properly directed, greedy, selfish, arrogant and ignorant”. “The wisdom of this world (society) is like “Filthy Rags” to the Creator” Seek His Wisdom…It is True and Accurate and will come to manifestation!

    The CEO’s of the companies involved have ENJOYED the Wealth of the “Slave (common laborers) Workers” for years. They have taken the money for socializing, entertaining, and luxury; most of them not ever considering the poor and less fortunate people, who did not come into this world with opportunity such as they did.

    For every Action there is a Reaction and for every Cause there is a Effect and Consequence. The Cause is “lack” of Principle and Integrity among business people. The consequence here is “FAILURE” for being Greedy, inconsiderate, arrogant and a lack of gratitude for what was given to them (CEO’S) as a position in a high place of helping to establish a “equitable” world among all people in our USA. We must take care of home first, others second. KEEP OUR MANUFACTURING IN AMERICA ! KEEP AMERICA STRONG ! Then we can reach out to others.

    The BIG 3 WILL BANKRUPT either soon or later and the CEO’S will be SET FOR LIFE FINANCIALLY, while the Tax Payer and the children and grandchildren of the Tax Payer will PAY THE DEBT. THIS IS NOT JUST NOR FAIR ! The people of America are being “demoted” to the Slaves of the world. Corruption beginning in our homes, not through invasion.

    Even IF they are BAILED OUT, they WILL FAIL! There are NO JOBS available and the Consumer’s Credit Record (for most part) is lower than the Banks will allow for them to buy cars. So who will BUY THE CARS? NO ONE ! If no one can afford the cars , how will the Big 3 PAY BACK THE DEBT? They will FAIL and come to the table once again “begging for more money”. The TAX PAYER IS LEFT WITH THE DEBT and already broken ! As the Tax Structure is currently, it ONLY insures that the “middle class” pays the most tax; even the CEO’S will not have to pay TAXES…again only the middle class with carry the Burden.

    It is indeed time for Change. BANKRUPT NOW ! Begin anew. Let the CEO’s put together “their Savings” and start over.


    Concentrate on new jobs, with NEW LEADERSHIP. It is not the FAULT OF ANY PRESIDENT or Senator etc. It is the change that is part of the Divine Plan, which NO MAN has the ability to control. We live in the system of Time and Time has come to an End because of lack of Respect and Disobedience to the Creator. LIKE OR NOT, YOU HAVE NO CONTROL..IN ONE MINUTE YOU CAN BE TAKEN OFF THIS EARTH ! No Man on this earth will be able to change anything, UNLESS
    they publicly TURN BACK TO THE CREATOR AND GIVE HIM THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND FOLLOW HIS GUIDELINES FOR LIFE ON THIS EARTH. (The Scriptures deal with more than adultery, fornication and envy – read and you will find out)

    The only thing a man can do, according to the Scriptures prophesized years in advance, is turn back to the Living Blessed Eternal Creator who says “TURN UNTO ME AND I WILL HEAL YOU AND HEAL YOUR LAND”. “It also states that “The Government will be upon the Shoulders of Y’Shua “Jesus” as HE IS COMING BACK TO ISRAEL
    And perhaps by 2012. (check your computer for the new calendar-there isn’t one to find).


    Should President-elect Barack Obama keep his promise to Planned Parenthood and strike down nearly every pro-life law in America?

    No, absolutely NOT ! That will Not indicate that he is a “liar” or keeps false promises as this is a “critical issue”. It will indicate that after all of the fast moving political campaigns and influences, President-elect Obama has had time to reflect and consider the consequences of “promoting such an act”.

    First of all, if you are a Believer in the Blessed Eternal Creator, you will not want to “KILL” the creation in gestation as that is against the Ten Commandments. That is interfering with God’s work. (There are NO ILLIGITIMATE CHILDREN as God’s ways are higher than human’s ways and thoughts. ILLIGITIMATICY was created by biased, uncompassionate, prejusticed society.) Many women have been raped and did not conceive because it was not to be. Many women, who have experienced sexual encounters outside of a relationship have not conceived because that was not approved by the LORD. Many women, who in a relationship or married have “prayed” to conceive and could not. God has a Divine Plan and He uses the opportunities that man calls “Evil” for His Good. There is NO JUDGEMENT; there are consequences and lessons to learn. Allow the child to be Born; that soul that is trying to come and experience this world and NEEDS a Body.

    Second, according to the Scriptures, the “Father’s Sins are visited upon his children to the fifth generation”. I am sure, that if you are aware of this Scripture and you are a Believer, you will NOT want his little girls or their children to suffer, so he will make a Wise choice. MURDERING UNBORN BABIES IS WRONG ! “Of God’s kingdom there is No End”. There is room for everyone on this planet.

    Third, President-Elect Obama should consider that the people who are in the Planned Parenthood Movement are NOT Believers in God because if they were, they would be following His Laws of Life. Therefore, as President of the United States and an example for the World, you must definitely state that you have considered the consequences and withdraws your promise. You should READ THE BIBLE and ATTEND regularly a church or messianic synagogue, which reaches back to the roots of Judaism, but accepts Messiah Y’Shua “Jesus” as the Lord and Savior. Then you will be covered with Prayer, Protection and Favor of the LORD GOD ALMIGHTY and the USA will begin to flourish once again. Even the Muslims do not believe in abortion, so they
    Will also respect you.


    Please share this letter with ALL SENATORS and CONGRESS PEOPLE. Not any of you will WIN unless you follow the directions of Life in the Book of Life.

    Kristy Anonymous
    Las Vegas Nevada

  • I just came upon your site through PRG. Count me in!!
    I am ready to literally ‘take to the streets’ for transparency and to extinguish the alphabet/industrial complex!!

    Micah Evans

  • Matthew

    In looking at open electronic media, please keep two things in mind. No federal communication should require a restrictive license agreement, nor should there be any patent-restrictions that prevent the sharing of the media and the software to playback the media. MP3 and YouTube is not acceptable.

  • Dave

    I think that one infrastructure project that President Obama should consider is the Trans-Global Highway, proposed by Frank X. Didik a number of years ago. Didik, if you recall, is the founder of the Electric Car Society back in the early 1980’s. According to Didik, the proposed “highway”, which would contain roads, rail roads, water, oil and gas pipes as well electric and communication cables. The highway would use and standardize the existing road networks and build new roads as well as a number of key tunnels. Interestingly, the longest Tunnel in the proposal, would still be shorter than the longest existing tunnel today. It would seem that there are many advantages to the construction of the Trans Global Highway including vastly lower cost and faster shipping, better allocation of resources, the ability of utilizing raw materials and much lower carbon emissions, than the existing transportation system. The highway would open up a new era of international cooperation. The Trans-Global Highway site is located at

  • I’d like to ensure the public has a right to information held by government, even when inconvenient for an agency or an official who works in one. Stop creating new exemptions to FOIA unless they are publicly available and determined to be necessary. Push more information out proactively, thus reducing FOIA requests and the backlogs, and put resources toward working to reduce backlogs.

    The group I coordinate, the Sunshine in Government Initiative, has its own set of recommendations, which I throw into the mix:

    1. Restore the presumption of disclosure in implementing FOIA across the executive branch.

    2. Create an independent, online ombudsman to help citizens access their government.

    3. Ban agencies from proposing or endorsing unnecessary statutory exemptions from disclosure. Any new statutory exemptions proposed or supported by the administration should be limited in scope and life and include oversight.

    4. Speak on the record, and urge his senior deputies and aides to do the same, in all statements about policy and current news about public matters.

  • Well said, Rosalyn! Thanks for your input.

    By making this data available, not only will citizens no longer be left the dark, but innovators can also reuse the data in compelling ways that spark our imagination and tell new stories. (Like these:

    I admire the DC government for encouraging such creative play with their Apps for Democracy mashup contest, which Ellen blogged about yesterday

  • I would like to see the Obama administration take a page from the Fenty playbook and work with the Federal CIO Council (and whoever else plays a leadership role in gov data policy) to shift from a standard of “gov data is private until someone demands it be made public” to “gov data should be public unless someone can prove it needs to be private”. The DC government has done an excellent job of maximizing the amount of government data made publicly available in real-time (see: — *without* compromising personal privacy.

    Making government information ( public via feeds on a realtime or as-available basis allows concerned citizens to map, chart, and otherwise track the work of government — increasing transparency. Convenient, updated, and clean data feeds on national parks, federal grants, crime, public health, and more could all be turned into incredible public resources by enterprising individuals and organizations.

    What’s troubling to me is that not only is data not available for public viewing and use, but few people even know what data the government is storing. We don’t even know what to ask for. Keeping the public in the dark creates a sense of disconnection and powerlessness that itself is detrimental to public engagement. Right now, even if everyone in Congress and the administration were perfect souls who never traded a friendly regulation for a campaign contribution — we wouldn’t trust that they were, because we’ve got a constant sense of being kept in the dark.

    I would love to see an Obama administration carry the “it’s about *you*” theme right down to this geeky but important aspect of the federal government. It’s our government, we should have access to our own information. (Give us access, and you’ll see what people-power can do.)

  • A caveat from the reality-based community:

    Govt. transparency via online access is indeed a public good, and many great ideas have been suggested above.

    But nobody has mentioned the MAJOR problem of COMPUTER SECURITY.

    I’ve done internet security R&D for 18 years. Our entire internet infrastructure is as full of vulnerabilities and potentially catastrophic RISKS, as was our (former, now-rapidly-collapsing) complex financial system.


    Having said that, by all means, let’s go implement systems to boost govt. transparency. But we need to think about security from the very start.

    The CIA and FBI cannot afford to blindly trust all “insiders”, nor can any local Voting Official. The vast majority of computer crime is caused by trusted insiders, not be external hackers.

    Current political infighting occurs by anonymous sources who leak to mainstream media. What policies will govern ANONYMITY on our new governance systems? What about the INTEGRITY of communications? (I.e, how do we know a “highly-placed White House official” really holds such a position?)

    Besides all the Insider issues, there is a genuine external threat from nations like China, who already penetrate US govt. networks routinely, and who hacked into both the Obama and McCain campaign sites. So, for example, such hackers might sow confusion and controversy by modifying various data (much as the COINTELPRO operations successfully undermined the cohesion of social-change groups in a previous era).

    I hope this splash of cold water will make everybody commit to analyzing the Security of their new applications BEFORE causing people to become dependent on yet another DANGEROUSLY VULNERABLE piece of social infrastructure.

  • Thanks, everyone, for the encouragement and thoughtful feedback. Keep’em coming!

  • Tim

    Great list, indeed. Thanks for sharing!

    This stuff is relevant not only for the Obama Administration, but for politicians and political parties elsewhere around the world who are serious about civic engagement in the 21st century.

  • Late … tired … distracted … must say: my thanks to Tim Bonnemann (@planspark) for having tweeted this.
    I’m past familiar with baffle-gab and schmooze. On 2nd reading (It’s almost 1AM!) I’m just more impressed.

    thanks for this / congrats to whatever is blowing in your sails.


    p.s. the situation never requires of us that we do more than we can.

  • This was a very solid collection of information. Thanks for putting it together. I’m looking forward to tracking your views on how the new administration is living up to its promise of Open Government.

  • B Collins

    that is a great piece of work.


  • There’s a double benefit the administration could realize from publishing data feeds (which was the 1st commitment in candidate Obama’s white paper on transparency!): using the same feeds internally can give employees the real-time information they need to do their jobs more efficiency and to encourage collaboration, so a coordinated data feed strategy could simultaneously help rebuild confidence in government through transparency, while also increasing its effectiveness and reducing costs!

  • Great ideas, hoping that an Obama administration embraces radical transparency.

  • Fantastic round-up. Let’s hope this gets into the hands of the transition team.

  • Fascinating ideas, and I am looking forward to seeing what happens. Keep following these issues for us!