Ellen Miller

Thank you, Ellen Miller

Ellen Miller (Photo: Sunlight Foundation)

Ellen Miller (Photo: Sunlight Foundation)

Today, Sunlight Foundation announced Chris Gates will take over as its new president in October after co-founder and executive director Ellen Miller said she would step down from eight years at the helm.

“I truly believe that open and equal access to information is the bedrock of democracy,” Ellen wrote in February announcing her departure. “Without it, citizens cannot make informed decisions. With it, citizens learn who and what they can trust. This belief has always been the passion of my life as it will always be the Sunlight Foundation’s goal.”

Because of this belief, everyone in the modern open government movement — from the civic hackers to the federal C-suite to everyone in between who champions the importance of open data — can thank Ellen for being instrumental in driving what is fundamental to civic innovation as we practice and celebrate it today.

I still remember when I first launched GovFresh and, within days, Ellen blogged about it. Having left Washington, D.C. years before for California, I had grown increasingly disenchanted and removed from what happened inside the Beltway. My work with GovFresh has changed that sentiment over the years, and Ellen’s small post was part of the spark that made me think perhaps Washington was getting the disruption it needed, backed less by political mudslinging, and more by a simple, straightforward path to transparency and economic innovation.

Many incredible people in the civic movement have worked under Ellen at Sunlight. From policy to technology, it has become the incubator of open innovation and innovators in Washington, and has produced many people I’ve come to admire beyond just their work there.

The first time I met Ellen was at TransparencyCamp West at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, where I interviewed her about what we then called “Gov 2.0.” I still remember that day well, meeting the Sunlight team, attending my first unconference, and realizing there were now people in Washington “just like me.” If DC was then like it was today, I would probably still be there. For those who consider themselves civic and government innovators within the Beltway, Ellen and Sunlight helped make that happen.

I’m excited about what’s to come with Chris as its new leader, but it’s also bittersweet to see Ellen step down. It’s hard to imagine the open government movement without her but, no matter what she does after, her legacy will continue to inspire the next generation of civic idealists the same way she’s inspired me.

Thank you, Ellen Miller.

Transparency is Dead. Long Live Transparency.

As sovereign power passes to the new king upon the death of the old, so do I propose that Ellen Miller’s proclamation that “the drive for data transparency has stalled” [Speech video 0:49 ] yields a pursuit for transparency and open government that is filled with renewed vigor – and new perspectives.

While I agree that enshrining mandates for data transparency and open government principles in law would be the easy way to ensure that they continue in perpetuity, I don’t believe that it’s the best way to forward the movement.

In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that open government will only be accomplished by:

  1. Relegating transparency to an equal position with participation and collaboration.
  2. Building civic responsibility in citizens.
  3. Changing government culture.

Relegating transparency

Transparency has enjoyed a special (and dominant) place in the open government movement such that I feel as though I speak sacrilege when I say it is a false god. Now don’t get me wrong, I love transparency and completely agree that it is a necessity for open government. But transparency alone is not enough.

I say it’s a false god because the real goal is accountability. Transparency is only the lens through which accountability can be determined. Once data is verified, or a transgression is uncovered in the data, what do we do? Well today, we announce it publicly and expect the appropriate agency to respond out of fear and embarrassment.

There has to be a better way!

Enter participation and collaboration. How nice would it be if every time a transgression was discovered, there was a reliable way to not only ensure that the information could get to the people within government that could fix it (participation); but in addition, if the various offices and individuals that were responsible had the ability to work together to actually solve the problem (collaboration).

Sounds kinda like a fairy tale or a children’s story, doesn’t it?

But I believe that is what we’re pursuing – we don’t want a government that we can monitor, we want a government that we can monitor and that’s responsive to our needs and input as citizens.

Building civic responsibility

The Open Government movement has largely been focused on what all these cool new technologies are enabling – and that makes perfect sense. In order to utilize any tool, you have to understand it first; and in order to understand it, you have to play with it. We’ve been doing that.

Now however, we seem to have moved to another plateau. There are a lot of conversations about what the goal of the movement actually is. For me, it’s about a sea change in the relationship between citizens and government in the United States of America. I grew up with no concern for, nor belief in anything the federal government or any representatives said or did. Unfortunately, this is more the norm than the exception today.

I see the Open Government movement as a panacea for the ills of our current government system. The technology creates the possibility of a government like the one taught in our childhood civics classes – the American Dream: all people are equal and live in a true meritocracy that is fairly governed by a system that perfectly balances service provision and minimal interference in the lives of its citizens, enabling each and every one to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in whatever way they choose to define that.

As soon as I realized that this fantasy is driving my involvement in the movement, I also saw a flaw in the fantasy. Where is civic responsibility in this idyllic vision we were raised with? Does the average American want to sign up for selective service, pay taxes, serve on a jury, vote, or even serve as a representative in government? Of course not! We’re all good with the life-liberty-and-pursuit-of-happiness-greatest-country-in-the-world thing, but you can keep the rest of it – thanks, but I’ve got other things to do.

Now, you and I can pretend that this isn’t part of what we do. We work on technology implementation and adoption. We’re revolutionizing government. Right?

Unfortunately, a transparent, participatory, and collaborative government isn’t worth much if no one looks at the data, participates, or collaborates with it! If you haven’t realized this yet, open government is actually going to add more civic responsibility to an already jaded and apathetic citizenry. What are we going to do about that?

Oh. And don’t fool yourself that there will always be watchdog groups that are passionate about specific issues. These groups are merely a proxy for citizens, and their legitimacy rests on being able to engage a broad constituency.

To make a long story short, if you’re working in this space and your strategic plan doesn’t include some means of empowering, impassioning, or educating citizens on why they should care, you’re missing something.

Changing government culture

I simply don’t believe that mandating open government will result in open government. Granted, without President Obama creating the climate in which change can occur, it would be much more difficult than it is currently, but that has already happened. The political cover necessary for drastic change has been laid out.

What is required is the laborious process of changing government culture. I will not claim to be an expert on agency open government plans, but I was looking at NASA‘s the other day and was pleasantly surprised by their three flagship initiatives: Policy, Technology, and Culture. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? If you can change those three things, you can successfully implement open government internally. I do think there is an order that needs to be followed here however (and you’ll notice that culture gets the limelight):

  1. Technology needs to be understood. I’m not going to talk much about this because this is mostly what we’ve all been doing so far. Nonetheless, technology creates opportunities and in order to leverage them, you need to understand how it works and what it’s capable of.
  2. Culture needs to change. The first step is figuring out what the change is that you’re trying to bring to fruition (I think the Open Government movement’s current introspection that I referenced in the previous section is a form of this). In keeping with the principles of the movement, it’s probably good to do this in a way that is transparent, participatory, and collaborative – with the civil servants that will be directly affected as well as all stakeholders, be they at other agencies, organizations, or actual citizens. There is no better way to lead than by example. The exciting part of this is that the process itself will also set the change in motion. (for more detailed cultural change hints, Lovisa Williams recently wrote a great post about effective culture change within an agency called The Elephant of Change).
  3. Policies will need to change to support the new technologies and culture. That is their job after all – to provide a structure that produces reliably consistent results. I would encourage policy changes to be liberal when providing more freedoms and very conservative when creating restrictions. This is a time for trial and error, and (where appropriate) the mantra of ‘fail early, fail often’ will actually help to shorten the transition period. At that point, it will be possible to create intelligent policies that are crafted not only with the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, but also with all of the benefits that the open government movement will have brought to government.

In my estimation then, the key to successful Open Government implementation is a focus on changing the culture of your agency or department or office to be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Exactly what that means in your specific case is where the complexity lies, and most likely you’ll get it at least partly wrong the first couple of times you try to figure it out. It doesn’t matter – mitigate the risks, fail where you can afford to, and move on. This is how transitions work, and if we are proactive about our intentions, maybe we can build that idyllic country that we grew up believing in – although with responsible and engaged citizens that make it even better and ensure its longevity!

Is open government closing?

Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller said what’s been on many minds of late during her ‘Open Government Scorecard’ speech at Gov 2.0 Summit today. In a nutshell, “the drive for transparency appears stalled,” she said. Miller highlights the lack of data quality on data.gov and USAspending.gov and gives an overview of Sunlight Foundation’s new Website, ClearSpending.org, a scorecard for data accuracy on USAspending.gov.

Here’s the full text of her speech and a few strong quotables:

We are beginning to worry that the Administration is more interested in style than substance.

If we settle for a superficial kind of approach, Gov 2.0 will be remembered as a failure. Government has learned to say the right things — now we need government to actually get serious about technology and transparency.

Our job is to hold the Administration’s feet to the fire – bureaucrats aren’t going to act just because someone asks nicely. Government isn’t going to change how and when it makes data available – even when a few good people on the inside want it to – because of a directive.

It’s not going to happen until laws are changed, or Executive Orders are issued, or until enforcers are given real power and the President himself makes it a priority.

Video of speech:

O’Reilly Media Washington correspondent Alex Howard interviews Miller at Gov 2.0 Summit:

Gov 2.0 guide to the Public Online Information Act (POIA)

The Public Online Information Act (POIA) of 2010, H.R.4858, was introduced on March 13 by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) to put public information online in user-friendly formats in a timely fashion. The bill applies to Executive Branch agencies and is essentially a proactive approach to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). Sunlight Foundation has launched Public=Online, a grassroots campaign to gain support for the legislation.


To establish an advisory committee to issue nonbinding government-wide guidelines on making public information available on the Internet, to require publicly available Government information held by the executive branch to be made available on the Internet, to express the sense of Congress that publicly available information held by the legislative and judicial branches should be available on the Internet, and for other purposes.

Video intro to POIA:

Press conference with Rep. Israel, Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller and Personal Democracy Forum Founder Andrew Rasiej announcing the bill:

Israel and Miller discuss POIA on MSNBC:


Gov 2.0 guide to Sunlight Foundation

Sunlight Foundation is a Washington, DC-based 501c(3) non-profit organization founded in 2006 to focus on “making government transparent and accountable.” Its name comes from a quote by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Sunlight was co-founded by Michael Klein and Ellen Miller. Miller serves as its executive director.

Ellen Miller GovFreshTV interview:

Ellen Miller CSPAN interview:

Ellen Miller Web 2.0 Expo interview with Tim O’Reilly:


  • OpenCongress.org: Brings together official government data with news and blog coverage, social networking, public participation tools, and more. Free, open-source, not-for-profit, and non-partisan web resource with a mission to make Congress more transparent and to encourage civic engagement.
  • Foreign Lobbying: Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, a joint project of ProPublica and Sunlight, digitizes information that representatives of foreign governments, political parties and government-controlled entities must disclose to the U.S. Justice Department when they seek to influence U.S. policy.
  • Congrelate: Lets users view, sort, filter and share information about members of Congress and their districts.
  • Transparency Corps: Lets anyone, anywhere have a positive impact on making our government more transparent by aggregating small actions that require human intelligence but not specialized political knowledge.
  • Party Time: Documents the Congressional fundraising circuit.
  • Transparency Jobs: Features jobs from both the US Federal Government and non-government organizations.
  • LouisDB: The Library Of Unified Information Sources, an effort, to paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis, to illuminate the workings of the federal government.

Sunlight Labs

Sunlight Foundation also includes Sunlight Labs, a “community of open source developers and designers dedicated to opening up our government to make it more transparent, accountable and responsible.” Sunlight Labs has an online community and a Google Group. Clay Johnson is its director.

Clay Johnson GovFreshTV interview:

Clay Johnson Gov 2.0 Radio interview:




More Sunlight Foundation

Best of GovFreshTV in 2009

GovFreshTV interviewed many of the leading figures in the open government, Gov 2.0 movement in 2009. It’s an incredible list of thinkers shaping the future of government.

I’m honored to have met and talked with each of them about the work they’re doing.

Here’s a review:

Craig Newmark

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark talks about Gov 2.0 and social media’s role in democracy.

Bill Eggers

Bill Eggers is the author of ‘Government 2.0’ and co-author of ‘If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government.’

Ellen Miller

Sunlight Foundation Co-founder and Executive Director Ellen Miller discusses open government, transparency and gov 2.0.

Clay Johnson

GovFreshTV talks with Sunlight Labs Director Clay Johnson.

Dmitry Kachaev

GovFreshTV talks with Dmitry Kachaev, Director of Research and Development, DC Government OCTO Labs.

Jake Brewer

Sunlight Foundation Engagement Director Jake Brewer discusses Gov 2.0, open government and transparency.

Mark Drapeau

Dr. Mark Drapeau (@cheek_geeky), co-chair of Gov 2.0 Expo, share his thoughts on Gov 2.0 in 2009, and what to expect in 2010.

Laurel Ruma

GovFreshTV talks with O’Reilly Media’s Laurel Ruma.

Silona Bonewald

GovFreshTV talks with Silona Bonewald of Citability.org and League of Technical Voters.

Jim Gilliam

GovFreshTV interview with NationBuilder, act.ly and whitehouse2.org founder Jim Gilliam.

Open gov, Gov 2.0 leaders react to White House Open Government Directive

Here’s what open government and Gov 2.0 leaders are saying about the new White House Open Government Directive.

What’s your take?

Carl Malamud, Public.Resource.Org (@CarlMalamud)

Carl Malamud

“This is great. No equivocating, vacillating, hemming, or hawing. This is all good, big thumbs up to the folks that made this happen.”

Ellen Miller, Sunlight Foundation (@EllnMllr)

Ellen Miller

“The Open Government Directive demonstrates how the Obama administration is matching its aspirational goals with concrete policies and accountability measures. I expect it will create a sea change in how the government and public interact, what information we as citizens have at our fingertips, and that it will redefine that public information means that its online. It’s going to be up to all of us to participate and monitor how well government meets these goals.”

Craig Newmark, Craigslist (@craignewmark)

Craig Newmark

“The Open Government Initiative is a huge commitment to:

  • listening to all Americans, hearing what they have to say
  • telling people what’s going on in government, like where the money goes

The results will create effective large-scale grassroots democracy and far greater fiscal responsibility.

I feel that these efforts are complementary to the adoption of the US Consititution.”

Chris Vein, City and County of San Francisco (@Veinesque)

Chris Vein

The President’s Directive is a tremendous step forward. It not only further explains the President’s vision, but it provides an aggressive roadmap and timeline for getting Federal, State and local governments to improve transparency, increase participation and collaboration. San Francisco is proud to have responded early to the President’s call for open government with our Open Data Directive and DataSF initiatives. The President’s Directive will help San Francisco improve and extend our goal of a more transparent and open City.

Dustin Haisler, City of Manor, TX (@dustinhaisler)

Dustin Haisler

“The Open Government Directive is a great starting point for the open-gov movement in the federal government; however, one thing to consider is whether open data is truly “usable” data for our constituents. Instead of just putting datasets online for mashup artists, we should also focus on the interface our citizens will use to get the information. In addition, multi-agency collaboration starting on the local level will be a very important key to the overall initiative’s success. Overall, I think the directive is good move in the right direction for the federal government.”

Peter Corbett, iStrategyLabs (@corbett3000)

Peter Corbett

“We’ve all been eagerly awaiting the OGD and it’s not a let down by any stretch. It will lend support and clarification to what is a complex issue for our government: how to become more open, transparent and participatory. What we’re seeing here is the innovative use of technology and smart policy to unleash the talent of the American people. I’m most excited about how the work we’ve done on Apps for Democracy will soon be institutionalized throughout federal agencies when OMB releases guidance for how to use challenges, prizes and other incentives for stimulating citizen driven innovation.”

Andrew Wilson, Health & Human Services (@AndrewPWilson)

Andrew Wilson

“This directive represents a significant step toward the president’s goals of transparency, public participation and collaboration. One element that I would like to see emphasized as part of the implementation is a concerted, systemic effort to improve the tools government employees have available to collaborate internally. For me, improved internal collaboration is an essential element to developing the framework for a more fully engaged and responsive government. Imagine a world where cross-departmental information flow was so robust that citizens could interact with ANY agency on ANY issue and could get a timely, complete and helpful response.”

Steve Ressler, GovLoop (@govloop)

Steve Ressler

“Open Government Directive is a great first step in the open gov/Gov 2.0 movement. While the data and transparency piece is important, I’m most interested in how agencies create their own open gov plans and what actions they take from their planning exercise. I believe most of the movement for open gov starts when it is done at the agency level and solving true mission needs.”

Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs (@cjoh)

Clay Johnson

“This is a great and ambitious plan that’s particularly challenging in terms of both logistics and technology. It is the equivalent of the “putting a man on the moon” of the Transparency movement in the federal government. Challenging, awe-inspiring and risky.”

Adriel Hampton, Gov 2.0 Radio (@adrielhampton)

Adriel Hampton

“I am concerned that some may use the document and its compliance deadlines as a simple checklist. However, as did the president’s January open government memo, this document empowers the growing ranks of Gov 2.0 innovators. Its guidance on data release and standards is also valuable and needed.”

Steve Lunceford, GovTwit (@dslunceford)

Steve Lunceford

“I think this is a great step to formalize a process and “movement” that has already been spreading throughout government. I would have like to have seen more guidance around transparency, participation and collaboration from an interagency standpoint versus just citizen interaction, but believe that could be a natural output as agencies strive to meet the various deadlines. It will also be interesting to see how quickly and enthusiastically agencies respond to a directive which lays out new unfunded mandates given the many priorities they are already juggling.”

Bob Gourley, CTOvision (@bobgourley)

Bob Gourley

The most important part of the directive, in my opinion, is the attachment with guidance on plan formulation. The thought put into that means agencies do not have to recreate the wheel when formulating their own plan. The part of the directive that we all need to watch out for abuse on: it seems to apply to all other than OMB and above. Yet history has shown those are the ones we need the most openness from.

Brian Ahier (@ahier)

Brian Ahier

“I am thrilled to see the emphasis on open government this directive represents. I hope to see government agencies able to meet the deadlines for action established by the Open Government Directive. I also want to see citizen participation in determining the high value data sets to be published. Since this directive also requires the data be published in an open format, it will be nice to have documents available where the data is not shielded within the pdf format.”