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Transparency in Government: Let the Sun Shine In

Interview with the Sunlight Foundationu2019s Executive Director Ellen Miller on campaign finance transparency and the role of journalism is democracy.

Part of the Series

Last year, The Sunlight Foundation’s Executive Director Ellen Miller shared her insights on campaign finance transparency and the value of data journalism in our democracy. This week is Sunshine Week, an annual national initiative that promotes open government and the public’s right to know what our government is doing, and why. We checked in with Miller to find out what her team is prioritizing in the year ahead. This is an edited version of that conversation. What are your biggest transparency concerns for 2013?

Ellen Miller: Moving forward to fulfill the promises that the Obama Administration has made with respect to transparency for open data. We want to see the agencies putting out more data that citizens can use, and we want to see that initiative spread to state capitals and to cities all around the country.

This is the age of transparency, and there’s no better time than Sunshine Week to remember that, to figure out what kind of data we want, how citizens will use it and make sure that it’s in their hands. Sunlight’s core interest is to use this data to hold government at all levels accountable, to enable citizens to ask the kinds of questions they want to ask about why a legislator did this or why they voted that way or why they took political money from that interest. Without access to data, they can’t possibly ask these kinds of questions. Transparency is a key ingredient of what our founders intended when they talked about a free and open and democratic society.

Are there particular sets of data that you’re hoping the Administration will make public in the coming year/years?

Miller: We asked the Administration four years ago to give us an audit of the data that’s collected by each government agency. And we never got that. So we’re in a situation where we don’t know what we don’t know. There has been some great investigative journalism that uses government data, so we know there could be public access to so much more. For example, data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration details employer-specific information about occupational fatalities. This data, intended to help employers identify dangerous conditions and ‘take steps to improve safety and prevent future accidents,’ has also allowed investigative journalists to expose unsafe conditions and tell heartbreaking stories. The Center for Public Integrity and Huffington Post took advantage of the OSHA data in a series of articles that expose unsafe working conditions.

This is the kind of data we told the Administration we’re interested in because it can be used to hold those who report to government accountable. But without having an actual list of what corporations have to report to the federal agencies that regulate them, it’s pretty hard to establish a firm list.

A lot of that information would be available via a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request now, but you want it to be available in a more accessible form, is that right?

Miller: This Administration does not have a very good record when it comes to granting FOIA requests. And relying on FOIA to make public information accessible is just wrong. FOIA puts the burden on citizens to ask for the information, and that’s the wrong approach for a democracy. It’s also outdated. In the times in which we live, it needs to be online.

Transparency is a key ingredient of what our founders intended when they talked about a free and open and democratic society.

Furthermore, we want to see that data available in as real time as possible, so when the information is reported to any agency or department, it ought to be turned around and made accessible to the public very, very quickly — within 24 hours.

Senator Jon Tester is introducing a bill this week called the Public Online Information Act. Sunlight helped inform the content of this bill. It would require government to make any information that is required to be made public to be publicly available online. We couldn’t be more pleased that Senator Tester has reintroduced this during Sunshine Week, because it really is a statement about how important it is to have public information publicly accessible.

Can you tell us about the transparency report card released on Monday that assesses government disclosure at the state level. How did the states do?

Miller: It was not a pretty picture. There were eight [states] that got an A and six that got Fs, including my home state of Kentucky. (Read the report.) Evaluated across six criteria, the Sunlight Foundation developed a scorecard and letter grades for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Transparency Report Card judges legislative websites in relation to how government information is publicly available. Factors include: completeness, timeliness, ease of electronic access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards and permanence. Most state legislatures are generally behind the technological curve, and that has negative implications for government oversight. However, our experience working with many in government shows there is an appetite to modernize disclosure practices, and fortunately, cash-strapped state legislatures do not have to employ expensive services to follow these open data principles.

If you were to give the Obama Administration a letter grade for transparency, perhaps based on similar standards, could you say what it would be?

Miller: We can’t. The situation is so complex and it varies so much from agency to agency, much less department to department, that there would be no way to develop even a simple schema to evaluate how well they are doing. We have always said that the promises made by the Administration four years ago were quite extraordinary, and we have been very clear that we have been quite disappointed in their implementation. So across the federal side of things, there’s no question that there’s a lot to be done.

One of the concerns that we have about the president specifically is the lack of real-time transparencyfor his c4, Organizing for Action (OFA). The fact that, for example, the president spoke to an unknown number of people who gave $50,000 [to OFA] on Wednesday night is concerning to us. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t know who those people are in real time as they make these contributions. There was a lot of pressure put in the last month or so on OFA to make this information available. Initially they said they would not make any of the donors available. They will now, but only on a quarterly basis, which is too late for understanding how influence might be applied in a meeting tomorrow.

What campaign finance reform policy changes are you hoping for in time for the 2014 elections?

Miller: The two most important things for us are to get real-time disclosure of the super PAC money and the dark money, the c4 money. To us, that’s what the Supreme Court said should be done in 2010, and it still hasn’t been done and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will on behalf of either the Republicans or the Democrats to do it. But we think that’s critically important.

And the second piece is to get real-time disclosure of lobbyist information — who are they visiting and what are they discussing. Those are the two most critical pieces of information that impact the influence industry in Washington.

Your organization is always coming out with amazing new tools and new sites and apps to help citizens and journalists understand what our government is up to. Can you give us a preview of wthe new tools, apps and websites you have in the works for the next year?

Miller: We’re going to start improving and expanding some of what we already have that we know is working quite well, like Influence Explorer: the data actually creates a narrative, looking at the state and federal contributions and the federal lobbying, and the grants and contracts that a particular corporation might get.

Another one of these sites is called Scout, which is a legislative alert system. If you’re following the issue of immigration, you can get an alert about every bill that’s introduced at the state level or at the federal level, or every regulation that is pending or issued that has the word ‘immigration’ in it. So this is an unbelievable resource tool for journalists and for issue activists.

We’ll also be continuing to improve this site called Docket Wrench, that lets you look at the provenance of federal regulations. You can see how many comments there have been on a particular regulation and you can compare them and figure out whether there’s actually one comment or whether there’s 60 of the same comment. It shows you visually who’s influencing the rulemaking that happens after a law is passed.

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