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Tag Archive: Online Transparency

As IRS Takes Aim at Fake Social Welfare Organizations, Will Some in Congress Take Aim at the IRS?

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Internal_Revenue_Service_logo In a surprise announcement, the IRS has opened the door to re-writing outdated rules regarding political activity of so-called social welfare organizations. The move is long overdue. Over a year ago, Sunlight urged the agency to take a look at rules that have not been updated since 1959. We also told Congress that after it held hearings on the IRS’s targeting of groups with conservative sounding names, it should provide guidance for the agency as to how it could more effectively, efficiently and fairly enforce the law. Even though that congressional leadership never materialized, the IRS should be congratulated for taking the first steps toward reforming its broken rules. The IRS doesn’t have an easy road ahead of it. In the best case scenario, rules won’t be finalized until after the 2014 elections, ensuring that fake social welfare organizations—organizations like Crossroads GPS on the right and Patriot Majority USA on the left—will continue spending the vast majority of their money on election-related activity, not "social welfare." The IRS will face obstruction from congressional Republicans (in the form of legislation attempting to ban the IRS from enacting new rules, threats to its budget, or still more hearings) as well as court challenges that will further threaten the adoption of clear regulations.

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OpenGov Voices: 3 simple ways cities can improve access to online information

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee Matt MacDonaldthereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Matt MacDonald is the co-founder and president at NearbyFYI. NearbyFYI collects city government data and documents, helping make local government information accessible and understood. He can be reached at matt@nearbyfyi.com. Matt is also one of the winners of Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Grants.

At NearbyFYI we review online information and documents from hundreds of city and town websites. Our CityCrawler service has found and extracted text from over 100,000 documents for the more than 170 Vermont cities and towns that we track. We're adding new documents and municipal websites all the time, and we wanted to share a few tips that make it easier for citizens to find meeting minutes, permit forms and documents online. The information below is written for a non-technical audience but some of the changes might require assistance from your webmaster, IT department or website vendor.

Create a unique web page for each document or form

Each city or town meeting that occurs should have its own unique web page for agenda items, meeting minutes and other documents. We often see cities and towns creating a single, very large web page that contains an entire year of meeting minutes. This may be convenient for the person posting the meeting minutes online but presents a number of challenges for the citizen who is trying to find a specific meeting agenda or the minutes from that meeting.

Here is an example of meeting minutes that are in a single page that requires the citizen to scroll and scroll to find what they are looking for. This long archived page structure also presents challenges to web crawlers and tools that look to create structured information from the text. Proctor, VT provides a good example for what we look for in a unique meeting minutes document. We like that this document can answer the following questions:

  1. Which town created the document? (Proctor)

  2. What type of document is this? (Meeting Minutes)

  3. Which legislative body is responsible for the document (Selectboard)

  4. When was the meeting? (November 27, 2012 - it's better to use a full date format like this)

  5. Which board members attended the meeting? (Eric, Lloyd, Vincent, Bruce, William)

The only thing that could improve the access to this document is if it was saved as a plain text file rather than a PDF file. Creating a single web page or document for each meeting means that citizens don't have to scan very large documents to find what they are looking for.

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What Have they Got to Hide? Lawmakers Should Allow Meetings with Lobbyists to be Disclosed

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The sign for K Street, NW in DC - the home of lobbying in America.Recently, my colleague Lee Drutman concluded that banks met with regulators at the Federal Reserve, Treasury and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission more than five times as often as reform-minded consumer groups in the past two years.  His analysis provides a valuable tool for the media, academics and the public to better understand who is trying to shape financial industry regulations. His conclusions, and the follow up questions that can now be asked (Did the banks get what they wanted? Are consumers’ interests being served?) are only possible because the agencies posted information about the meetings online. Which begs the question: If the regulators can provide information about who is trying to influence the regulations they write, why doesn’t the public have access to similar information about meetings Members of Congress or their staff have with lobbyists?

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Filming OpenGov Champions: Marko Rakar, Zagreb, Croatia

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You cannot hang around the global OpenGov and transparency community without running into Marko Rakar. This open data activist ended up creating so much change in his native country of Croatia that he is now a close consultant to the country’s current president in all matters of politics. His story is so inspiring that even though we focus mostly on the open government movement in the U.S. in our OpenGov Champions series, I wanted to nominate him as our next Champ. He is a great example of making big change happen through fairly simple actions.

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Robust Lobbying Disclosure Needed to Address Advantage of the 1% of the 1%

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1% of the 1% logo

In the 2012 election 28 percent of all disclosed political contributions came from just 31,385 people. In a nation of 313.85 million, these donors represent the 1% of the 1%, an elite class that increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States.

 
During the 2012 election cycle, a tiny percentage of lobbyists gave a combined $34.1 million in campaign contributions, putting them in elite company with the political 1% of the 1%, individuals who have given at least $12,950 each toward identifiable federal election activities. And while lobbyists’ donations made up only a small portion of the overall contributions from the political 1% of the 1%, their contributions might net the most bang for the buck. Lobbyists more often gave directly to candidates rather than to outside groups; and it is to those candidates—when they are elected—that the lobbyists turn when they need help. Shining the brightest light on lobbying activities will expose to the public where the levels of influence are and who is pulling them. Sunlight has developed a set of eight principles that form the foundation of a comprehensive lobbying disclosure regime.

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Learning how to navigate Congress.gov

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The new and much improved location for Congressional information, beta.congress.gov, has plenty of resources to offer users. Now the Library of Congress (LOC) is offering webinars and in-person training to help users navigate the expanding website. We applaud LOC for providing a variety of training opportunities for those seeking a better understanding of the information available.

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