Opengov leaders: President Obama, use your bully pulpit to promote democracy reforms in the State of the Union

President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address. Photo credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

President Obama will try to set the tone for public policy in 2015 and the rest of his tenure with tonight’s State of the Union address. This annual tradition allows a president to highlight issues and make proposals that have the potential to both become priorities in the halls of Congress and become topics for national discussion and debate.

To that end, we asked a diverse set of leaders on the forefront of advocating for civic engagement, civic technology, government accountability and open government to weigh in on what President Obama should say in tonight’s agenda-setting speech. Together, we’re raising our voice to ensure that the president knows we and the organizations and communities we represent are holding him accountable to promises he has made about improving government transparency and engagement, making money in politics reform, upgrading government technology, updating the Freedom of Information Act and more. We hope you’ll join the conversation by adding your comments and sharing this post with your networks!

From our perspective at the Sunlight Foundation, we encourage President Obama to follow through on promises he made repeatedly on the campaign trail and in early State of the Union speeches to create more transparency about money in politics. He should support proposals that create real-time disclosure of campaign finance spending, like the Real Time Transparency Act, and reforms on lobbying to ensure that everyone who is a paid influencer is required to register and report his or her lobbying activities.

News outlets are reporting that the president will once again, and without irony, decry the disastrous effects of the Supreme Court’s ill-fated Citizens United v. FEC decision, as he did five years ago in the State of the Union speech that immediately followed that ruling. It’s worth noting that this is an issue where the president has not “walked the walk” of reform. Despite regularly deploring the influence of money in politics, his embrace of super PACs and dark money to fill his campaign coffers and that of fellow democrats, not to mention his lack of vocal leadership in pushing for a revamp of disclosure reforms in light of the explosion of multimillion dollar political donations from an increasingly shrinking pool of deep-pocketed donors remains incredibly disappointing for many of us in the reform community.

To be sure, there’s still time for President Obama improve his track record by pushing Congress and the Federal Election Commission to adopt new disclosure requirements so that we can know who’s trying to influence our elections. One bill he should throw his weight behind is the SUN Act — the Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits Act — introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. This bill addresses the problem of dark money by requiring disclosure of large donors to nonprofits that choose to engage in political activities and put already public information about nonprofits online in a searchable, usable format.

Those are our priorities, keep reading for five other perspectives, and please join the conversation by sharing your thoughts: What do you hope to hear tonight?

Allowing a handful of lawyers at the Department of Justice to write “secret laws” that justify everything from torture and domestic surveillance to the use of drones to carry out targeted killings is not a practice that should be allowed to continue outside the public eye.

These opinions by the Office of Legal Counsel are binding on the executive branch but are often kept private. It’s time for President Obama to show that he is willing to support transparency and openness measures that hold his administration to a higher standard.

There’s still time for President Obama to have a forceful impact on his legacy. He can do much in two years to improve on a record that has, unfortunately, been marked by extreme steps to squelch leaks and punish whistleblowing. This is about showing that this administration is not only willing but committed to holding itself accountable to the American people.


Open government should mean better government built in full partnership with “We the People.” It should mean better service delivery and easier access for all Americans to the heart of our democracy: our public laws, public officials and a public accounting of where and how every dime of our tax dollars is spent. With a dazzling array of technologies and innovations at our fingertips, truly open government should possible in every state house, city hall and even our nation’s capitol.

Much work remains to fulfill the heady open government promises made at the dawn of President Obama’s term. We have a long way to go to change the “Culture of Closed” that still reigns supreme. That culture change will only arrive through cooperation and collaboration, two things in dearly short supply in today’s Washington, D.C.

I hope to hear the president tout his incipient open government accomplishments — from the General Service Administration’s crowdsourced development of a civic engagement playbook, to the creation of 18F, to the implementation of the DATA Act. But I also hope to hear a clear commitment to work with the career civil service, the Senate and the House of Representatives to ensure that, when the president rides off into the sunset, these small victories do not disappear, but endure and grow.


President Obama has time to convince the public – and the agencies – that he meant it when he said he wanted his administration to be the most transparent. To many, it does not appear that the agencies are convinced: they continue to block FOIA requests for information about the development of policy. The president should put the power of his office behind a bill that reins in agency abuse of the b(5) deliberative process exemption to withhold information and makes the FOIA a tool for public accountability.

The president also can and should move from vague statements promoting greater national security transparency and:

  • order disclosure of information about how surveillance under Executive Order 12333 functions;
  • acknowledge drone and missile strikes against individuals, including any civilian deaths;
  • end the censorship of information about the CIA torture program, which continues after the release of the summary of the Senate report.


Six years ago, on his first full day in office, President Obama promised to create an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” He went on: “In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears … The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.”

Despite these fine words, to date, the White House has failed to fulfill its own 2008 campaign promise to “create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format.” He has two years left to fulfill this promise; we are still waiting.


The League of Women Voters would like President Obama to address our primary policy priorities – protecting and engaging voters, reforming money in politics and defending our environment – in his State of the Union speech. With the president’s support, we would like to see the DISCLOSE Act, which would ensure that voters know the identity of donors who have been secretly financing campaign expenditures in federal elections, become law in the 114th Congress. We’d also like presidential support for legislation that defines coordination between candidates and outside spending groups, including super PACs, in order to limit the big money flowing into our elections.

Outside of Congress, we would like to see the President support a redraft of the IRS proposal that defines election activities of 501(c) organizations to stop the abuse that allows secret campaign money to flow through tax-exempt organizations. The League also strongly supports the president’s Climate Action Plan and we would like him to call attention to the historic importance of acting to stop climate change. Finally, we hope the president will address the need to update the Voting Rights Act to ensure our elections are fair, free and accessible for all eligible citizens.