If you caught yesterday’s announcement, you may have noticed a new major focus for the Sunlight Foundation: local government transparency. Broadening our focus to include municipal transparency is both a natural extension of our work and a unique opportunity to explore and deepen our general understanding of the ways in which individuals and governments need, produce, and exchange information. Over the past few years, we’ve occasionally addressed local issues, but we have never made a concerted effort to explore what openness at the local level really means or the implications such work could have for transparency in national and international contexts.
Municipalities are important because, in a sense, people live more of their lives in cities than in countries. We may call our nation state “home” when we need to describe the broadest context of where we’re from, but our days and nights are spent working and living and sleeping in the reality of cities and towns. Cities and towns plow and mend the roads that line our commutes, zone and police our neighborhoods, grant permits to our parades, and create and clean our public parks. Whether or not you have a family or a business or a bike, the decisions made by your local government affect the fabric of the world you physically live in.
This remains true, even when our attention is directed elsewhere: Much of our political activism and ideological identity are focused on national issues. Certainly, for Americans, our sense of being a citizen is tangled in our sense of the national-level issues that often dominate our public consciousness – our understanding of which freedoms we fight for, which party we vote for, and the four year stretch between the only ballot box we think we’re supposed to care about.
To be clear, the federal government has a profound impact on our lives and is the primary expression of the sovereignty of a people. But to ignore the role played by local government would be to miss out on the richness of what local governments create for us.
Our local governments aren’t just last-stop service providers for our federal government. They’re the foundation upon which all political representation and participation is built. Cities and other local governments present an unparalleled opportunity for us as citizens to see our needs, frustrations, and ideas recognized and acted upon, our values made visible, and our interests reflected in the society that surrounds us. Our cities are essential drivers of commerce and innovation. Our towns are critical to our understanding of interdependence, community, and history. Municipalities are the heart of our culture and our society, and there is no reason why they should not also be at the heart of our vision for open government.
In all of Sunlight’s work, we try to balance contributing new ideas and solutions to important problems while also supporting and learning from the great work being done by our peers and mentors. As we expand our scope to local issues, we’re looking forward to learning from efforts we already know about, such as the work done by our friends at Code for America, and the work of new allies we have yet to meet.
A snapshot of what you can expect from us: Over the next year, we’re going to be exploring what the landscape of open data and open access to information looks like in America’s cities and municipalities. In addition to ramping up our desk-based investigations, monitoring, and commentary, we’re going to get creative, exploring bigger questions about municipal government and the impact of local culture through a variety of media and in-person visits. And as we start to pursue this work, we’re looking forward to working with and hearing from you.