Prepared Remarks For The FCC’s Open Government & Civic Engagement Workshop Program
Good Morning. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. My name is John Wonderlich; I am the Policy Director for the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan nonprofit dedicated to using the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government transparency.
At the heart of all of the Sunlight Foundation’s work is a deep appreciation for the transformational power of online technology. Our pairing technology with a vision for government transparency is visible in our organization, which digitizes data and creates tools for presenting information, engages communities in advocacy for more information, and makes sure tools and information are in the hands of journalists, citizens, government employees, and everyone in between.
Technology’s role as the driver of disruptive change has become culturally familiar, as our roles as consumers, family members, and businesspeople have evolved over the last few decades. The Internet’s role in shaping governance and citizenship, however, is only just starting to develop.
As technology redefines how we interact, our government now has an opportunity to help redefine civic life — to live up to President Obama’s vision for a technologically empowered society, by creating a more transparent, connected democracy.
There are two primary constraints that will determine just how connected and transparent government can become as we adjust to new technology.
First, digital citizenship will only be available to those Americans who have access to the tools and infrastructure necessary to be a part of the growing national digital sphere. As the FCC addresses its mandate to promote access, broadband policy should be driven in part by what Internet access makes possible.
Digital technology creates new forms of agency for all citizens. Online access to government information allows curiosity to become expertise, disparities to become investigations, and expertise to become guidance and policy. Citizenship can only transform into a more mature, relevant form, fulfilling the potential of a nationally connected citizenry, when government is willing make our vital national information truly public — online, in real time.
Most fundamentally, government must commit to modernized disclosure of ethics and influence data. Among government’s primary responsibilities is to preserve the public trust on which it is built. The Sunlight Foundation has maintained a particular focus on creating digital access to this information, which includes campaign contributions, earmarks, lobbying records, and personal financial disclosure statements. President Obama clearly shares this priority, promising, in Change We Can Believe In to build
“a centralized, online database of lobbying reports, tax earmarks, congressional ethics records, campaign finance filings, and information on how much federal contractors spend on lobbying…”
If fulfilled, this vision for online accountability can deepen the public trust in government, and empower private citizens and government overseers alike in exposing and deterring public corruption. Ethics.gov, when created, will need to be built on new interoperable databases, to allow searches to function across different bodies of ethics information, many of which will only be posted online after a real commitment to public access overcomes discomfort at increased scrutiny.
In addition to checking influence and realigning incentives, public attention to government information can empower citizens to become more relevant participants in governance. If essential public notifications are accessed in practice only through expensive commercial publishers, even for government employees, we should expect only moneyed interests to have the information necessary for participation. When agencies and offices broadcast opportunities for public participation beyond traditional means, only then will the distributed expertise of citizens across the country become an asset for governance. Solving this problem will take effort from individual agencies and offices — reaching out to citizens and stakeholders where they are available — and also will take unlocking the public information now collected in unapproachable repositories like the Federal Register or FedBizOpps (FBO.gov).
In order to unlock citizens’ fuller digital potential, the government must also recognize an emergent body of technological expertise growing throughout the country. Programmers, web developers, and designers, both amateur and professional, are discovering that their skills are relevant to many of our government’s problems, and are looking for ways to help. Data.gov helps to establish their relevance as stewards of our national digital sphere, by offering the raw data necessary for innovation outside government, which in turn, can inspire change within government. The successful Apps for America and Apps for Democracy contests demonstrate the potential of the citizen developer, creating dozens of applications at little or no cost to the government.
Influence data, procedural information, and data access can all help empower citizens to more fully participate in governance. These three spheres of public information represent a large part of our government’s new opportunity — and new responsibility — to serve the needs of a digitally empowered citizenry.
Just as a successful national broadband policy is necessary to fulfill our shared vision for a transparent, connected democracy, government transparency is necessary to allow digital citizenship to develop to its full potential.