Accountability, Better Services, and Economic Opportunity


The promise of government accountability, better government services, and new economic opportunity is why we do what we do.

At the Sunlight Foundation, we spend each day striving to make government more open and transparent by ensuring government data is easily accessible to the public online and in real-time. Around the country there are countless others trying to do the same.

Between the nonprofit and advocacy community working on this issue, the consultancies and companies, and the government itself, there is a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources being devoted to our cause. In the midst of our diligence, though, the community of open government advocates rarely stops to communicate exactly why we do what we do to the public – and why it’s so critical that we succeed in our mission.

OpenGovies need to remember to continuously break things down for those outside our echo chamber. When doing so, it’s useful to have a benchmark, and the one I use is, “Would what I’m saying or writing make my family in Middle Tennessee care enough to act?”

After a lot of trial and error, in big and small towns across the country, I think we can boil down the need for our work this way…

An open government built on open data is worth fighting for because, through it, we will achieve three exceptionally valuable results for society: Accountability, Better Services and Economic Opportunity.

Here’s what we mean.

1) Transparency and Accountability

Online, real-time data makes it possible for any citizen to understand what’s (actually) going on with government at any time from anywhere. And when they know, citizens can act.

Transparent, and accountable is the way participatory democracy was always supposed to be. Applications which make it easy to see how tax dollars are spent, how our elected officials are being influenced, or how legislation that citizens can weigh in on are moving through Congress, can all be built on open government data. This transparency and public engagement made possible through open government data is a game changer for the media and for citizens’ ability to hold our government accountable at every level. Imagine an electorate being able to make informed decisions based on data rather than punditry and political spin…

In short, open, transparent, and accountable is the way participatory democracy was always supposed to be. And for perhaps the first time ever, we have affordable, ubiquitous technology today which can make it truly possible within a generation. Let’s create something that would make our Founding Fathers drool.

2) Better Government Service

Love them, hate them or indifferent, the services that government provide touch every citizen’s life every day. From schools to roads to health clinics to electricity grids to defense, we as citizens have invested in (and trusted) government with a very large portion of our livelihoods.

Open government data will allow for citizens and government alike to more easily see what’s working and what’s not by the numbers. Through open government, and the applications it allows for, we’ll ensure that tax dollars are more wisely spent and services more effectively and efficiently provided.

Need an example? Take a moment on SeeClickFix and report that pesky pothole or downed road sign in your neighborhood.

3) (Tremendous) Economic Opportunity

Perhaps the greatest by-product of creating a more transparent, accountable government through freely available open government data, is that in so doing, we will simultaneously create one of the most vast opportunities for new enterprise in recent history.

The Weather Channel is a $3.5 billion company built on data freely available from the NOAA. Companies like Garmin, or companies that produce smart phones, running watches or any of a hundred other devices that have geo-locational ability are similarly all profiting tremendously from the open government data in the Global Positioning System (GPS). In fact, one could argue (as Gov 2.0 evangelist Tim O’Reilly has done) that Ronald Reagan is the father of social network phenom FourSquare by making GPS data available to the public over twenty-five years ago.

What government data set will create the next new highly valuable and profitable business? Anil Dash, the founder and executive director of the new Expert Labs, says the trove of new health data recently released by the Department of Health and Human Services. I would agree.

When it comes to the opportunity with open government data, the sky is the limit. Were I a gambling man, I’d put money down that government would produce more jobs in the next 10 years by opening it’s data (an iniatiative that is ultimately a cost-saver), than through the $787 bn stimulus package it passed last year.

The only tricky part is that government doesn’t inherently want to get to where we need them to go. Government won’t become more transparent and accountable by opening its data on its own – and nor will it provide better services or create the kind of opportunity that the OpenGov community can already envision.

We’re going to have to demand it of them. And that’s what we’re doing through the Public=Online Campaign this year. We hope you’ll join us.

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  • Thomas

    Great blog!

    As someone unfamiliar with your organization I thought you did well in articulating the spirit of your movement. With the help of organizations like yours the charge to digitize and open up more government data will (hopefully sooner than later) be met with the realization that this level of accountability will not only provide a less expensive government, but a self-correcting and more efficient one. This would also benefit government employees as it would allow them to spend more time analyzing the public feedback and interaction with the information available. Bill Gates kicks some knowledge on the concept in ‘Business @ The Speed of Thought’ and refers to employees who benefit from the emerging technologies as knowledge workers. Highlighting the importance of allowing them to work with and manipulate data that promotes creativity and development in their work, Gates builds upon this idea to describe a healthy ‘digital nervous system’ that fuses innovation, application and efficient process. If I was lazy or inclined to making excuses to spite progress it might be hard to draw parallels between the two. As I’m neither and have a light work load today I will elaborate a bit for anyone interested. Both entities serve several million consumers. The government, with each citizen as a consumer, deals with different levels of user participation (involvement in educational and social programs, taxes, etc.) as well as user interaction (citizen activists, media outlets, lobbying groups representing business interests). Relate this to Microsoft’s consumers: with student, professional, and personal integration of Microsoft operating systems and software you have consumers with different levels of participation and also user interaction, all over the world. Realizing the potential that the new wealth of information from online user interaction and participation would be creating, Microsoft made it a point to encourage innovation for progress in both external and internal business processes; thinking of ways to create more value for consumers and at the same time working towards more efficient ways to internally facilitate this. This sounds so simple it’s stupid. Gates wrote this over ten years ago. Industry and non-industry related organizations have learned to adapt the principles over time, but there are still government agencies and officials who don’t embrace the open structure and I can only attribute that to the fact that they are A) unwilling to stand up the level of accountability it would bring against them, or B) completely technology incompetent and unable to understand the cost savings and increased levels of constituent interaction that would be directly related to the move.

    We aren’t talking about monopolizing a software industry or fighting to be the first to get a revolutionary new product to market, it’s as simple as reevaluating procedures and integrating systems to mirror the technological capability of the citizens that our government serves.

    It’s good to see that there are other people out there who can appreciate the benefits, and inevitability, of an open flow of information and that they have taken it upon themselves to fight for the cause. Well done, Sunlight.

    Terry, good insight but try to have a more open outlook to the challenge. The continued development in mobile and computing devices, as well as the growth and imminent prominence of cloud computing and the App services market, will work to evolve consumers into users who are more demanding of transparency and accurate information. The new social media tools, when combined with the information that the citizens deserve to have access too, will help a new generation of savvy tech users to create new ways of distributing (and monetizing, trust me)this flow of information, they just need the information first!

  • Jake,

    You lay out three SF objectives: accountable government, better government services, and new economic opportunity.

    As a voice from outside your self-described “echo chamber,” let me suggest that the first objective is far and away the priority. Fixing potholes faster and selling weather information is fine, but it’s not where the critical need is. To some extent, moving these two up to the same level as accountability might have the unintended effect of diluting the most important element.

    Another suggestion is that you need to fill in some gaps between transparency and accountability. Transparency, of course, refers to information about important government activities. Accountability is the goal – to make government responsible for its actions (and hopefully help bring those actions more in line with the public interest).

    For the transparency-derived data to have meaning, you need to establish some baseline, some description of the way that the underlying activities are supposed to be conducted. Then you need a decent way of comparing the activities with what they should be, and a way that serves to compellingly describe differences (where government activities are not moving toward the public interest). Finally, your need some kind of process for using that information to cause the change that is desired.

    I see an almost exclusive focus by SF on the first step (making the data publicly available in a usable format), but very little if anything on the other essential steps needed to implement real accountability. I make these observations as a strong supporter of your efforts, but with the desire to help move you toward the true accountability goals that you clearly seek.


    PS: It’s discouraging to see so few comments (from outsiders and/or the SF staff) on this blog. Doing what I can to help improve that.