Author: Jake Brewer

Accountability, better services and economic opportunity

The promise of government accountability, better government services, and new economic opportunity is why we do what we do.

At the Sunlight Foundation, we spend each day striving to make government more open and transparent by ensuring government data is easily accessible to the public online and in real-time. Around the country there are countless others trying to do the same.

Between the nonprofit and advocacy community working on this issue, the consultancies and companies, and the government itself, there is a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources being devoted to our cause. In the midst of our diligence, though, the community of open government advocates rarely stops to communicate exactly why we do what we do to the public – and why it’s so critical that we succeed in our mission.

OpenGovies need to remember to continuously break things down for those outside our echo chamber. When doing so, it’s useful to have a benchmark, and the one I use is, “Would what I’m saying or writing make my family in Middle Tennessee care enough to act?”

After a lot of trial and error, in big and small towns across the country, I think we can boil down the need for our work this way…

An open government built on open data is worth fighting for because, through it, we will achieve three exceptionally valuable results for society: Accountability, Better Services and Economic Opportunity.

Here’s what we mean.

1) Transparency and Accountability

Online, real-time data makes it possible for any citizen to understand what’s (actually) going on with government at any time from anywhere. And when they know, citizens can act.

Applications which make it easy to see how tax dollars are spent, how our elected officials are being influenced, or how legislation that citizens can weigh in on are moving through Congress, can all be built on open government data. This transparency and public engagement made possible through open government data is a game changer for the media and for citizens’ ability to hold our government accountable at every level. Imagine an electorate being able to make informed decisions based on data rather than punditry and political spin…

In short, open, transparent, and accountable is the way participatory democracy was always supposed to be. And for perhaps the first time ever, we have affordable, ubiquitous technology today which can make it truly possible within a generation. Let’s create something that would make our Founding Fathers drool.

2) Better Government Service

Love them, hate them or indifferent, the services that government provide touch every citizen’s life every day. From schools to roads to health clinics to electricity grids to defense, we as citizens have invested in (and trusted) government with a very large portion of our livelihoods.

Open government data will allow for citizens and government alike to more easily see what’s working and what’s not by the numbers. Through open government, and the applications it allows for, we’ll ensure that tax dollars are more wisely spent and services more effectively and efficiently provided.

Need an example? Take a moment on SeeClickFix and report that pesky pothole or downed road sign in your neighborhood.

3) (Tremendous) Economic Opportunity

Perhaps the greatest by-product of creating a more transparent, accountable government through freely available open government data, is that in so doing, we will simultaneously create one of the most vast opportunities for new enterprise in recent history.

The Weather Channel is a $3.5 billion company built on data freely available from the NOAA. Companies like Garmin, or companies that produce smart phones, running watches or any of a hundred other devices that have geo-locational ability are similarly all profiting tremendously from the open government data in the Global Positioning System (GPS). In fact, one could argue (as Gov 2.0 evangelist Tim O’Reilly has done) that Ronald Reagan is the father of social network phenom FourSquare by making GPS data available to the public over twenty-five years ago.

What government data set will create the next new highly valuable and profitable business? Anil Dash, the founder and executive director of the new Expert Labs, says the trove of new health data recently released by the Department of Health and Human Services. I would agree.

When it comes to the opportunity with open government data, the sky is the limit. Were I a gambling man, I’d put money down that government would produce more jobs in the next 10 years by opening it’s data (an iniatiative that is ultimately a cost-saver), than through the $787 bn stimulus package it passed last year.

The only tricky part is that government doesn’t inherently want to get to where we need them to go. Government won’t become more transparent and accountable by opening its data on its own – and nor will it provide better services or create the kind of opportunity that the OpenGov community can already envision.

We’re going to have to demand it of them. And that’s what we’re doing through the Public=Online Campaign this year. We hope you’ll join us.

Introducing the Cycle of Transparency

Government transparency is that rarest of political phenomena — a great idea with support across the political spectrum and popularity among the public. Yet, here we are in the 21st century with every tool we would need to make government more transparent and accountable, and still we are operating with a government that often behaves as it did in the 19th century.

So, transparent government is a good thing, but we do not yet have one. Now what?

It’s clear that there is a breakdown between conceptual support for the idea of government transparency and enacting the changes necessary to make it so. There is fear and resistance to change inside government that requires cultural, political, and attitude adjustments. And there’s a large gap between the good intentions of citizens and watchdog groups and think tanks and reporters, and translating those good intentions into effective results. Many people want to act, but they rarely know how or where to begin.

For many, the concept of transparency still simply feels too vague to get behind in a meaningful way. People strongly support transparency in theory, but don’t know what they would need to do, or how they would need to think, to create the “open, transparent government” we talk about.

We’ve grappled with these challenges at Sunlight since our founding four years ago, and have been thinking about it with increased urgency over the last year in particular. How do we connect all the necessary parties and resources, and how do we put them together and act on them in the right way to actually make government more open and transparent?

Perhaps even more challenging: how do we explain it to people in a way that helps them know where they fit?

Now, the pieces are falling into place.

We know that at the heart of the open, transparent government we seek is ‘open’ government data that is available online and in real-time.

Government information should be as accessible to us as information about the weather, sports scores or knowing what’s going on in the stock market — and we need it to be this way so we can both hold government accountable and create new enterprise with what is made available to us.

In order to reach our vision of an open government – or an online, real-time government – we also know there are a number of “things” that must occur – and not just occur once, but continue to happen over time and continuously reinforce each other along the way.

This “Cycle of Transparency” demonstrates, in one image, the specific actions and the variety of actors that need to work together to create the open, transparent government we seek. We hope this graphic can be a useful tool in thinking about how to make city, state, federal, and even international governments more transparent.

Each type of actor and action complements the others in the Cycle to make every other element easier, or even possible at all. Of great importance is that just about anyone – from hardcore Internet developers to academics to government staff to reporters to activists – has a place in it.

One of the first places we often start in talking about transparency is in the crafting of policies that require the release of data from government. While no one piece of this Cycle is “first” or more important than others, the legislative component is a useful starting point. (Mostly because it’s the first one we wrote down.)

Lawmakers, lobbyists and think tanks (as well as citizens) all play a role in articulating new transparency policies and pushing them through the twists and turns of government processes. Those policies must adhere to core principles of openness, such as making sure government data is “raw,” that it is complete, or that it is searchable (in total, there are nine of these openness principles that government data should adhere to).

These principles aren’t things that government is accustomed to just yet, so the advocacy process is pretty difficult, and the subsequent “gap” between writing new legislation and actually getting legislation passed is more like a “chasm.”

One of the beautiful aspects of open government, however, is that while laws are written (and should be passed) to require the release of government data, Congress, federal agencies, states and cities can – in most cases – become more open and transparent without new laws.

Sidenote: A great example of “enacting without law” is that no law has been passed requiring all federal legislation to be available online for 72 hours before it is debated by Congress. Yet in 2009, Congress showed again and again that it could post bills online for three days before debate without the law requiring that action. Similarly, the “Open Government Directive,” released in a memo by the White House, has made all kinds of new government data available without laws to require it. (Though, it would be ideal if Congress codified the Directive into law to give it a lasting impact.)

Once data is released, government agencies (such as the Department of Energy or Transportation) and web developers anywhere can build the necessary technology to organize the data and make it usable. Federal repositories like Data.gov or Sunlight’s National Data Catalog are great examples of this type of public/private foundation building.

In the way of analogy, one way to think about this entire process is that it turns government into a type of public data wholesaler through which the public can build retail outlets.

With data being made easily accessible, journalists and bloggers can begin to dig into it, mix it up, identify relevant information and give the data context. As that critical context is provided, citizens absorb it and spread the information to others – both online and face-to-face – and make the data actionable.

Ultimately, informed citizen action creates greater public awareness; citizens become more effective, responsible advocates; holding government accountable becomes informed by data rather than inside-the-Beltway pundits, and better decisions can be made for our democracy.

As each element of the Cycle of Transparency moves forward concurrently, bringing about the changes we need to create a more transparent government, we also identify new needs.

At the end of the day, the process that the Cycle of Transparency describes is about creating a government more deserving of our trust, and ultimately, a government that allows its citizens to fully participate and hold government accountable as our Founders intended.

Introducing Sunlight Live

What if we were able to “cover” live events in a new way using government data that we’re able to compile and connect it to political events and personas of the day?

Today we’re going to take this idea to the next step by beginning to connect government data such as campaign contributions or lobbyist meetings to a political event in real-time. As Republican and Democratic leaders come together to debate health care in a public forum, Sunlight is going to provide an alternative to the mainstream media’s coverage. In a replicable pilot we are calling Sunlight Live, our team will connect data such as the aforementioned lobbying contributions or “revolving door”connections the meeting’s participants may have, and put them right next to the video feed, as any particular politician is speaking.

We think Sunlight can offer a unique live perspective on the debate in the midst of the media frenzy, by focusing not on the merits of health care, but on the money, connections, and influence data to which we have created access. In addition to displaying data from Sunlight and its grantees’ projects, our staff will once again be live blogging, facilitating online conversation via Twitter, and engaging the open government community in research as the debate unfolds. We don’t yet know exactly what we’ll need or what will work best … but that’s the point.

We’ll be getting things started at 10 a.m. with the beginning of the meeting. Hope you’ll join us!

An emblem for open government

As we’ve written about quite a lot so far in 2010, we are launching a national campaign to make government more open, transparent, and ultimately: accountable.

Today, we’re excited to put out one of the most important parts of building this campaign: the “emark” that will be emblematic of what we as an open government community stand for.

If you hadn’t noticed it yet, this is it at right.

This mark (as part of a full logo below) is a very important step because we’re not just building a campaign. This is a movement we’re part of. And when we say “we,” it is not just “the Sunlight Foundation” that we are talking about. It’s all of us who care about changing the relationship citizens have with their government by making it more transparent, participatory and collaborative. It’s anyone who thinks that government can work better on their behalf and has a responsibility to do so.

We hope this emblem is a first step in giving us something we can all own and point to as a symbol for what open government means to us, and what we believe. We hope it becomes a rallying point for those standing up to make an open, transparent government something we can hang our hat on – or our iPhones and Androids on.

We believe that what government does, how it is influenced, or how it spends our money are all things that are public information – and today, “public” means that the government’s data must be accessible by any citizen, at any time, from anywhere: online and in real-time.

Through the campaign we hope to dramatically further the movement for open government that has been building, and give it the infrastructure it needs to be successful at the local, state and federal levels for years to come.

The full logo that we’ve created for the campaign looks like this at left, and is what we’ll use for things like the campaign’s central website. While “Public=Online” could (or, will, I should say) one day be a fulfilled goal as a campaign and no longer be needed, the open government mark as indicated above is “evergreen” as we say, and can be used for years to come – no matter the campaign needs of the day related to openness and transparency. It’s also intentionally not “Sunlight centric” (one of our criteria), so that while it may be “powered by Sunlight,” any organization working toward government transparency can use it on their website or in their materials.

There were a large number of other criteria that we at Sunlight, and others around the country, felt the emblem needed to fulfill, and this video by our new media wiz, Noah Kunin, very creatively walks us through some of the logo’s features.

Google Group

The Wiki

We will launch our nationwide campaign in full in March to put necessary pressure on government and build the massive political muscle that will be required to get government to do what we need. Please join us by getting involved in whatever way works best for you. If you’re reading this, you’re already helping actually. The next step is join in the conversation via our Google Group “Citizens for Open Government” or even simply leave a comment below letting us know what you think.