Setting open government priorities for Congress in the 21st century

PopVox co-founder Rachna Choudary speaks at an OpenGovHub forum on open government in Congress, with Daniel Schuman, Travis Moore, Lorelei Kelley and Seamus Kraft looking on.
PopVox co-founder Rachna Choudary speaks at an OpenGovHub forum on open government in Congress, with Daniel Schuman, Travis Moore, Lorelei Kelley and Seamus Kraft looking on.

Opening legislatures to the people they serve isn’t the work of a day or a session. Open government is an ultra-marathon, measured not just in data released or rules and laws passed or repealed, but shifts in mindset, policies, culture and practices.

Sunlight has been at the forefront of advocating for legislative and institutional reforms in Congress every year for the past decade, with an agenda focused on lobbying reform, disclosing money, rules changes in the Senate and House, and increased structure and disclosure of open data online. (We’ve had some success along the way.) As Congress moves to publish more deliberative data online, we are continuing to advocate for reforms that will improve not only the legislature’s ability to inform the public about what it has done but what it’s doing, bring more expertise inside the institution and increase the capacity of staff through smart use of technology.

This morning, Sunlight joined a panel of open government advocates in Washington, D.C., at a launch event for Global Legislative Openness Week to talk through what the 115th Congress could (and should) do to build on a decade of progress. Video of our conversation is embedded below, including a separate discussion about opening parliaments and legislatures around the world, six ideas to improve congressional openness that build upon our existing agenda for digitization, engagement and disclosure.

1) A 21st century Library of Congress. In July, we joined many other organizations in hailing the confirmation of Carla Hayden as the next librarian of Congress as an opportunity to reinvigorate technology to not only inform the public about what’s happening in Congress, but to provide new means of engagement, collaboration, access and enlightenment. We are excited to see how Hayden approaches her work.

2) A “Digital Service” for Congress. While we have ongoing concerns about how transparent and accountable the U.S. Digital Service has been about its staff, work and performance, we strongly support the White House investing in bringing more technologists into government to improve the ability of agencies to perform their missions. Congress should do the same, not only embracing the Congressional Innovation Fellows but bringing more talented technologists in-house to build and maintain shared infrastructure that will increase the capacity of the institution and its members.

3) Embrace open source software. Sunlight has been an advocate and developer of open source software for many years, donating code, commits and comments to the public commons online. We strongly encourage Congress to follow through on the rhetoric of its leaders by adopting, adapting and creating open source systems for citizen relationship management, public comment and collaborative drafting.

4) Upgrade the Senate. Remarkably, senators still file their campaign finance reports in paper form. We hope that the Upper House of Congress will start taking more meaningful, constructive steps to match the House’s transparency. should exist in practice, not in theory, just like

5) Apply the Freedom of Information Act to Congress? Here, we step carefully. This summer, we celebrated Freedom of Information Act reform in Congress, but not for Congress. Here, we’d ask the question of Sunlight’s networks and communities: Should the FOIA apply to the federal legislative branch, as it does in some state governments? Our default answer may well be yes, but we’d like to hear from you.

6) Discuss! We expect these issues and others to be introduced and debated at a Transparency Caucus briefing on transparency and accountability in the 115th Congress at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 21, in the Rayburn building. [RSVP] As always, we hope the public will be an active participant in that discussion and building a Congress than is more open and accountable to the public it represents.