The Future: Government Transparency and Tracking Money in Politics

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Today, I humbly accepted the Knight Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism for our interactive reporting platform, Sunlight Live.

I’ve received multiple requests to post the speech and presentation – both of which you can find below.

And stay tuned for more exciting news about the further development of the Sunlight Live platform!

I am so happy to be with you today. We are honored by the award you have given us. And I am very happy to announce that Sunlight will use the $10,000 prize toward retooling Sunlight Live turning it into a full open source platform. Among the new bells-and-whistles we are exploring is the addition of facial recognition capabilities that will allow for the automated real-time display of relevant data as speakers change. I am also I am happy to say that the Knight Foundation’s continuing work with us will include substantial support for Sunlight Live.

Sunlight was designed to use the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency and to provide new tools and resources for media and citizens alike.

We take inspiration from Justice Brandeis’ famous adage “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” We were founded just four years ago on the cusp of the Abramoff Congressional ethics scandals. And our work has two fundamental goals:

……make it easier for journalists to do their reporting, to write the stories that need to be told by freeing data from the basements of the Capitol and other government buildings, and putting it online.

……to use the developing social nature of the web to engage citizens in a different kind of relationship with government. We are committed to improving access to government information , indeed…. redefining ‘public information’ as meaning “online” — and by creating new tools and websites to access that information and engaging communities in its use.

Sunlight’s work falls into 5 major areas: digitization of data, building tools and websites to provide easy access to it, advocacy, organizing and media production. By digitization of data we mean redefining what disclosure means in the 21 st century — developing databases out of either electronic or paper records (though we do very little of the latter). Part of this we do through funding (money is one of our resources), providing technical assistance, keypunching data, or plain ol’ scraping of websites.

Sunlight has supported the databases developed by the Center for Responsive Politics, the Institute on Money in State Politics, Taxpayers for Common Sense and OMB Watch. Think Money. Politics. Influence. Government Spending. We’ve also developed our own data sites – everything from databases on foreign lobbying to White House visitor logs to political fundraisers.

But where we excel and add special value is in building or supporting tool-building because we want to make it easy for journalists and citizens to find, use and consume government information. We’ve just released a suite of tools (many of which I am happy to say are funded by the Knight Foundation) to make political influence information more accessible.

We’ve started with a data ‘holding tank’ — TransparencyData. This site lets you get the original data — whether it’s state or federal campaign contributions, lobbying data or federal contracts and grants — you get the information you need in either a journalist or developer friendly format. Sometimes you just need a quick overview of the influence around a person or an entity. So on top of TransparencyData we built Influence Explorer — with just one search you can instantly see the top influencers and the influenced of your query.

Continuing this pattern, on top of Influence Explorer we built Poligraft which does the research for you and with one click on a bookmarklet shows you the influence connections between all the entities in a news article or blog post. Lastly, we have Politiwidgets a series of interactive infographics, fully customizable, filled with information about members of Congress, such as their campaign contributors, earmarks and the like.

Why would you use these tools? If you’re interested in BP, you can now can search through 4 or 5 datasets in one fell swoop to get a sense of their political power, including which lobbyists they have hired and how much they were paid. If you’re reading a press release put out by a member of Congress you can easily figure out whether the beneficiary of an earmark was also a campaign contributor. You can easily determine whether an individual has given political contributions to both state and federal candidates and just how much.

Sunlight is also interested in catalyzing a demand for greater government transparency so we’ve launched a national Public = Online organizing effort. We’ve already developed strong communities of technologists who are hacking away at government data, and Google groups of policy wonks and open government advocates. We are aiming to step up our work on the organizing front at both the municipal and state levels.

And, we produce our own media. From hosting 6 different blogs, to breaking stories on our Reporting Group site, to analyzing the quality of data coming out from the Administration to covering important events on Sunlight Live. We also produce reporting tools. Our latest is a one we’re calling Sunlight CAM (Campaign Ad Monitoring) — a widget for citizens to use to record the political ads they are seeing and to contribute to a distributed database to help us follow ad spending in the post-Citizens United world.

We are advocates too –we have 3 registered lobbyists – because we need new laws and new policies in the Executive Branch and Congress – and we need to revise old ones — to ensure that the public has online access to information in REAL time.

So let me turn for a moment to a candid assessment of how the current Administration is doing with respect to their plans to make data more accessible to the public. I should say at the outset that from the Executive Memorandum on transparency issued by President Obama on the first full day in office, to the full-blown Open Government Directive, to establishing new policies regulating lobbying of the Executive Branch, no organization has been more excited, enthusiastic or optimistic about the use of technology for data transparency than Sunlight. In many respects, this Administration has gone further and faster toward creating a transparent government than any that’s preceded it.

But now, 20 months later, the drive for transparency appears stalled. Lets look at several of the problems.

To be sure, there have been some meaningful first steps from agencies and the White House. The White House itself has posted its staffers’ ethics filings online, required extensive stimulus lobbying disclosure, and posted the Visitor Logs online for the first time. But these aren’t well-established policies, and exemptions to publishing this data are unclear and unstated. All of these initiatives need a steady hand and a clear commitment to mature into permanent, reliable, effective policies.

And one central Obama campaign promise — to “create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings” isn’t even on the drawing boards.

The Open Government Directive — the Administration’s 10-month-old manifesto on government transparency – is teetering between becoming a dated relic or a transformative commitment to a new era of openness. As you may recall, the central thrust of the directive is its insistence that all government departments create and implement their own open data plans, aimed at releasing “high-value” data to the public.

The plans that resulted, however, were little more than aspirational. In the first of those plans, 12 out of 30 agencies didn’t identify any data for future publication and altogether only 75 new data sets were promised. 75 data sets? It would be an understatement to say that was hugely disappointing. Enforcement of these plans has always been ‘soft.’ And now they face even greater uncertainty with the departure of OMB Director Peter Orszag and WH Ethics Counsel Norm Eisen. The Directive is only as strong as its enforcement.

Data.gov started with enormous promise. A single catalog for all government data is very exciting in concept. As it has evolved, we have gotten a progressively better website. But it’s still a pretty mediocre data repository and the types of data available remains an enormous concern. It turns out that the government has some wierd ideas about what counts as “high value” information. The Department of the Interior seems to feel that population counts of wild horses and burros are “high value” but records of safety violations like the ones that seem to have led to the recent West Virginia mine disaster are not.

We want to see data that can be used to hold government – and the entities that report to it – accountable: records and data that would allow the public to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of federal programs, policies and initiatives; the competence and integrity of its employees and contractors; its management of public resources.

USASpending was created to provide the public with information about how the federal government spends our tax dollars. It was launched in late 2007, but it’s already gone through three redesigns, each one flashier than the next, with gradients and maps and now a sort of GapMinder-style visualization tool. It’s pretty impressive…. looking.

Unfortunately, its data is almost completely useless…. Sunlight just launched an ongoing analysis of the grants data at ClearSpending.org.

The results aren’t pretty.

We found over 1.3 trillion dollars of broken reporting in 2009 alone. That’s fully half of the spending for that year. Some of the numbers are too big, some are too small, some are missing. Others don’t have the detail that’s required, or were reported months later than the law demands. You can’t trust any aggregate numbers you get from the site — answers to questions about federal spending that rise above the micro level. When we say things just don’t add up, we mean it. The government has known about this problem, and they say they’re working to fix it. But what we’ve actually gotten is a series of redesigned websites, each one with data just as unreliable as the one before it.

We are beginning to worry that the Administration is more interested in style than substance. If we settle for a superficial kind of approach, transparency – Obama style will be remembered as a failure. Government has learned to say the right things — now we need government to actually get serious about technology and transparency.

I’d like to close with a few contextual thoughts the world of technology, transparency, citizen engagement and government.

First, what gets us up every morning is that we believe that armed with more access to all kinds of vital public information, citizens can play a more productive and effective role in self-government and civic life.

Second, technology is critical to all of our work – it allows us to build communities, to disburse information, to engage citizens in improving it, and to deliver it however and whenever people want it. Technology is key for citizens as a tool for government accountability. Third, the Internet is the public space of the modern world, and through it government now has the opportunity to better understand the needs of their citizens. Through its magic, citizens can participate more fully in their government.

Fourth, our role as citizens is only as strong as our government is open. And we strongly believe that open data promotes increased civil discourse, improved public welfare, and a more efficient use of public resources. The key actions that make up our civic lives – informed voting, active participation, and taking action – all depend on access to public information. And, finally transparency of government information is the basis for accountable government. In an age of Facebook and Smartphones, Twitter and Foursquare, we have rising expectations of greatly expanded access to government information and easy access to our government officials to ask them questions.

Once again, let me thank you again for the wonderful honor you have given to the Sunlight Foundation today. We are thrilled to be celebrated in this way and to have been chosen from the amazing group of organizations that you considered.

Thank you!

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