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“Fiscal Cliff” Casts Shadow of Secrecy

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Just like the debt limit negotiations and Supercommittee process that helped cause it, the so-called "fiscal cliff" of expiring laws is creating another round of secretive negotiations among our political leaders. The heads of both parties now thrive on stories of impending fiscal consequences, even when they're of their own making.

To cope with a polarized electorate, our leaders have figured out a way to create an apparent impending disaster that is unpalatable regardless of one's ideology. Whatever the outcome of their fight with each other, they've created a dystopian future against which they can be made to look like heroes warding off impending doom with their brave bipartisanship.

It doesn't really matter which party started it (both of them) or whether this was avoidable (it was), because divided government has again led us to a place where the most important policy decisions are probably going to be made in secret, and then passed down to the rest of us.

While online disclosure and dialog don't threaten to take away politicians' power anytime soon, they do represent our best chance at elevating substance, rewarding merit, and reducing undue influence, whether in crafting legislation or in dealing with the struggles of divided government. Sunlight's approach to government transparency has made us skeptical observers of these political negotiations, and as we find ourselves entering yet another cycle, we decided to ask:

What can we expect of the next month, and what should we do about it?

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Sunlight’s Priorities for the Next Administration

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Regardless of who wins the presidential election, the next administration will have enormous power to say how open our government will be. We have organized our priorities for the next administration below, to share where we think our work on executive branch issues will be focused, in advance of the election results. From money in politics to open data, spending, and freedom of information, we'll be working to open up the Executive Branch. We'd love to hear any suggestions you might have for Sunlight's Executive Branch work, please leave additional ideas in the comments below. (We'll also be sharing other recommendations soon, including a legislative agenda for the 113th Congress, and a suite of reform proposals for the House and Senate rules packages.) Sunlight Reform Agenda for the Next Administration:

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International Declaration on Parliamentary Openness

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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness multilingual coversTomorrow morning, I'll be joining a number of other organizations in addressing a broad gathering of parliamentary officials at the World e-Parliament Conference. We'll be formally announcing the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, a joint document prepared and drafted by the growing movement of Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations, or PMOs, operating throughout the world. This is the clearest, most broadly representative effort yet to represent global norms for legislative transparency. It's intended to create common goals and expectations for a representative branch of government that is transparent and accountable, increasingly by using new technology to represent citizens better. Sunlight is participating as both a PMO, since our advocacy, reporting, and technology are so often about political influence and substance in Congress, and also as a convener, joining with the National Democratic Institute and the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency to connect PMOs from around the globe.  We created OpeningParliament.org to serve as a resource for the group and our activities, and since our kickoff meeting in May 2012 (adjacent to TransparencyCamp), the community has grown dramatically, and worked together to shape and sharpen the declaration.  Over 80 organizations have now endorsed the declaration, and we're proud to be presenting it to officials from the world's Congresses, Assemblies, and Parliaments tomorrow.

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Open Data Creates Accountability

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A series of recent blog posts raised questions on the value of open data and transparency. While thoughtful skepticism is constructive, there appears to be some significant confusion about the meaning of “open data," and about transparency and accountability. When activist developers like Aaron Swartz are concluding that “the case for opening up data to hold government accountable simply isn’t there,” or former government leaders like Beth Noveck are suggesting that there are “serious doubts” whether “open data” make government “more transparent or accountable,” then it’s time to engage. We should clarify something straight away -- this term “open data.” Open data wasn’t invented in 2009; open data isn’t born in a data portal. Construed most broadly, open data is people knowing things with technology. This information can be tabular, or not, structured, or not (though our preferences are clear.) When people ask whether open data can create government accountability, they’re essentially asking whether it’s helpful to know things about the government, and, strangely, coming up with uncertain answers. These answers are flawed, in part, because “open data” is being narrowly conceived of as the thing that fuels data contests and populates data portals, that is, the thing that sprang into vogue as Obama came into power. While Sunlight has been deeply involved in the last 3 years of “open data,” we’re also deeply grounded in the last 50. Every bit of open data we have now to be mashed up, evangelized, or opened exists, in part, through the accountability laws and norms that decades of work have created, about where citizens stand before their governments, and vice versa. If our first question is “does knowledge of government create accountability,” then the answer is clearly, definitively yes. Knowledge of the government creates accountability. As surely as ignorance and secrecy empower manipulation and abuse, information and knowledge empower self-determination. This is baked into Sunlight’s mission -- the idea that understanding the government changes how it works. The Brandeis quote that is the source of Sunlight’s name encapsulates that idea, and our work is intended to embody it. To suggest that open data can’t create accountability is to ignore the open data that helps create the accountability we already enjoy, and work to strengthen.

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