Open Cities

Sunlight Open Cities helps make municipal government across the country more transparent, accountable, and participatory.

We believe in the power of openness—the idea that we are all in it together—to improve society. Together and in the open, we are more accountable to each other, better able to understand the challenges we face, and to take action collectively.

At their best, cities are an embodiment of this kind of openness. Cities bring together diverse cultures, organizations, and individuals into a shared community larger than the sum of its parts, one where even the environment itself—from the streetscape to skyline—is shaped by the individual ideas and contributions of many people.

Open government is a critical part of achieving this vision. The Sunlight Foundation envisions cities led by governments that empower residents through access to information, technology, and participatory practice. We believe in a future where transparency is mandated—through sunshine laws and open data policy—as well as practiced in a culture of accountability, honesty, and collaboration.

This approach is a fundamental part of creating more just and equitable cities.

Legacies of exclusionary governance

Cities have great potential to represent the best of openness. They are also home to some of the most stark contrasts between haves and have-nots, and show the ongoing disparities of power and wealth.

Entrenched power structures—including the legacies of racism, discrimination, wealth inequality, colonialism—prevent many city residents from being able to fully participate in local democracy. As a result, political decisions, allocation of public resources, and delivery of public services often fall short of meeting the needs of cities’ most vulnerable communities.

An open city should strive to build more just, inclusive power structures.

Risks of technology without openness

Technology alone is sometimes offered as the solution for these problems. Focusing on modernization and efficiency of government in isolation, however, risks bolstering existing infrastructures of unequal power, or creating new, significant vulnerabilities for public dialog and for residents’ personal security.

An open city should be a responsible steward of technology, wielded transparently, as one tool among many for improving cities and empowering residents.

An open model for city progress

Sunlight’s work aims to configure a new, more democratic infrastructure of openness in partnership with everyone who has a stake in cities’ futures: individual residents, community organizations, government staff, federal policymakers, and international partners. Our work is focused in the following areas:

  • Creating a culture of openness in city hall
    Sunlight’s Open Cities Team provides direct technical assistance and trainings for city staff on a variety of topics related to open government, open data, and collaborative policymaking.
  • Mandating open government in cities
    We help cities research and develop policy reforms committing to 21st century transparency. To date, we have helped more than 60 cities create and enact open data policies.
  • Empowering community access to information
    Sunlight’s Open Cities Team works with community groups to understand city open data to expand their understanding of that data as it relates to their mission.
  • Spreading understanding of open government
    Through storytelling, events, speaking engagements, online communications, advocacy letters, and collaborations with reporters we help city residents understand their rights to government information.
  • Fighting for city information at the federal level
    Cities rely on federal data, including data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and more. We are a fierce advocate for the federal government’s ongoing investment in these programs.
  • Setting the state of the practice
    Through comparative analysis and research, we create guidelines and standards for how to do open government right.
  • Providing independent assessment
    Whether it’s holding governments accountable or helping cities understand their own performance, we provide an independent assessment of how governments are making good on their promises of openness.
  • Anti-corruption and city hall accountability
    The Sunlight Foundation’s extensive experience as an ethics and campaign finance watchdog positions our Open Cities Team as an essential source for journalists and reformers seeking to prevent abuses of power, and defend democratic integrity in City Halls.
  • An ambassador for city open government
    We are proud to represent U.S. cities in international conversations about open government, and to help foster dialogue between U.S. cities and their international allies.

Learn more about our work on Tactical Data Engagement and crowdlaw, our projects and resources, or what we’ve been up to most recently on our blog.