Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to testify today. My name is John Wonderlich. I am the Policy Director of the Sunlight Foundation. The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to using the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency. In my testimony, I would like to offer my organization's perspective on what the necessary components are of a transparent government, which we believe leads to an ethical one. The Sunlight Foundation’s work is deeply informed by an appreciation for new information and communications technology, and while my testimony will reflect that perspective, as it has developed in the context of the federal government, I hope to offer a range of observations and suggestions from our experiences that that may help this commission's ambitious scope and mandate. I would like to start by introducing Sunlight’s three principles for transparency in government, which I have submitted along with my testimony. The first of these is that transparency is government's responsibility. Just as the state is the primary steward of the public welfare, the state is uniquely able to create (or shun) an accountable, transparent government. Our second principle is that “Public” should also mean “Online”. When a disclosure requirement is fulfilled by a single binder the basement of a public building, the public is served poorly. Citizens should be able to access public information where they expect to find it, and that increasingly means online. The third principle is that data quality and presentation matter. Even wellintentioned disclosure systems will fall short of their potential without careful consideration of best practices for online publication. To live up to the “bond of trust between the people and their elected representatives” referenced by Governor Quinn in the executive order that created this commission, all branches of government need to make an affirmative commitment to online transparency and accountability. In the absence of such a commitment, the mechanisms of public accountability cannot thrive.
The Information of Influence Government's primary responsibility is to preserve the public trust on which it depends. For that reason, the Sunlight Foundation has maintained a particular focus on creating digital access to information pertaining to influence, such as campaign contributions, earmarks, lobbying records, and personal financial disclosure statements. For example, one of the Sunlight Foundation's major grantees is the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). CRP provides an online access point for campaign contributions and lobbying data, in addition to money inpolitics analysis. Their work provides essential access to influence data, as evidenced by their millions of web searches and nearly ubiquitous citations by the media. Most of CRP's work, however, is necessary only because the government has failed to effective disclose public information online. The Federal Election Commission was created in 1975 to administer new laws governing elections, and has as one of its primary mandates the requirement to “disclose campaign finance information.” While the FEC has invested significantly in their online presence, they have so far been unable to keep up with the services and search options required by journalists, expert researchers, and programmers. CRP fills the gap left by the FEC, making possible enormous public oversight that would not otherwise exist. Sunlight recently began working more closely with the FEC, offering guidance on how to upgrade their technological infrastructure. 1818 N. St. N.W. ▪ Suite 410 ▪ Washington, D.C. 20036 ▪ Ph: 202-742-1520 Fax: 202-742-1524
Similarly, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 established the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate as collectors and distributors of lobbyists’ disclosures. Again, a combination of legal loopholes and poor public access led to an ineffective system, where outside groups (such as CRP) struggled to fill in the gaps—digitizing, representing, and analyzing influence data. In 2007, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act again strengthened the reporting requirements, resulting in significant public access improvements. Sunlight pursued many of these reforms vigorously, and while congressional ethics data is far from perfect (the Senate still reports campaign contributions on paper, for example), we can say it is improving. Another significant reform to recently be enacted at the federal level is the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA). This bill established a federal website and database to publish all federal grants and contracts—USASpending.gov. This site was made in the image of its predecessor, FedSpending.org, created by the nonprofit OMBWatch, with funding from the Sunlight Foundation. FedSpending.org set a solid standard for online disclosure that the government ultimately emulated, ultimately copying even the technical documentation of the web services that allow other programmers to connect to the database. Another bill, proposed to strengthen the disclosure requirements for USASpending.gov, has yet to pass Congress. These are but a few examples of government programs that have failed to effectively create access online, forcing businesses and nonprofits to intervene. One of the Sunlight Foundation's primary goals is to digitize existing datasets, in recognition of governments’ widespread failure to adequately meet citizens’ needs online. We are digitizing information and building databases wherever information and influence can both be found. For example, we are taking on disclosures from foreign lobbyists (FARAdb), invitations to political fundraisers (PoliticalPartytime.org), federal subsidies, tariff suspensions, and even federal earmarks (EarmarkWatch.org). State governments should, and often do, learn from many of the federal government’s missteps. For example, campaign contribution data and lobbying data, available from the State Board of Elections and the Secretary of State, respectively, should be presented in as useful and timely a manner as possible. Essential databases such as these should also be designed to maximize public usage, through the bulk data access and APIs that allow programmers and analysts to visualize and pore through data in often unexpected ways. New online tools can help us identify loopholes in existing ethics and disclosure laws, and help us create real disincentives against abusive public servants, strengthening the public trust and solidifying our ethics laws. Transparent government, however, isn’t solely designed to make corruption less attractive. Public access can lead to positive incentives, and even allow for citizen collaboration with government.
Public Collaboration The Sunlight Foundation has also demonstrated the utility of digital tools for public collaboration. Our EarmarkWatch.org project digitized congressionally earmarked spending projects, and then built a tool for public analysis. Visitors to the site are encouraged to analyze individual earmark requests for their potential ethical implications, performing small tasks that, in aggregate, demonstrate the enormous potential for distributed oversight. Digitized earmark information also allowed us to create a Google Earth visualization of earmark recipients, allowing an ataglance view of congressional districts receiving federal funds.
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When the Sunlight Foundation prepared a comprehensive transparency reform bill, instead of meeting directly with potential sponsors on the Hill, we posted the bill online for public review on PublicMarkup.org. Within a few weeks, expert analysts and advocates posted comments on each section of the bill, producing a much stronger bill than we could have produced alone. This has helped policy makers to recognize public interaction as a source of both policy substance and political clout. I have led the Sunlight Foundation’s Open House Project since January 2007, developing proposals for transparency reform for the US House of Representatives, largely through a blog and public email list. Organized initially around a receptive Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, the community developed a recommendations report, and has continued to grow and advocate for reform since the report's publication in May of 2007. Many of the report's recommendations have been enacted, from incremental improvements in the information offered by Members and committees, to a comprehensive change in how Members of Congress are allowed to use the Internet. As receptive staffers and Members adjust to the world of online interactions, they are also building trust with the public—by proving that they can find value in public interaction, and also by slowly improving access to the procedures of government. While not every citizen will draft a law or attend a committee hearing, citizens have a right to expect access to the same schedules, transcripts, videos, and other documents that lawmakers, administrators, and lobbyists use to do their jobs. To build the trust of citizens, government needs to at least make it possible for citizens to contribute.
What Should Be Public? Given the fundamental civic importance of public information, governments face the complex task of meeting citizens’ expectations for online information. As businesses face the incentives of competition, they have developed realtime reporting systems to serve their customers that are years ahead of analogous government systems. To answer the question of what should be available online, it may be useful to first ask what should not be online. Generally, standards for redaction or withholding information are well established. Government is justified in withholding information that has personal information that would violate citizens’ privacy, information that businesses are justified in withholding (like trade secrets), information where the potential for public harm outweighs the public’s right to know, and information that would keep the government from being able to effectively deliberate or function. Other public information that does not fit these criteria should be public, and available online. Of course, digitizing all governmental information presents an enormous and expensive task, and will take years of effort and careful planning, but our public access goal should be clear: realtime, online disclosure. I have included along with my testimony a general plan appropriate for agencies addressing their information policies and Internet presence.
Freedom of Information Laws and Electronic Record Keeping As long as citizens do not have access to all public information, our Freedom of Information (FOI) Laws stand to fill the gaps, allowing citizens to assert their right to know. The hallmark of public access since their inception, FOI Laws are designed to enable citizens to hold even unresponsive governments to account. 1818 N. St. N.W. ▪ Suite 410 ▪ Washington, D.C. 20036 ▪ Ph: 202-742-1520 Fax: 202-742-1524
FOI Laws should be strongly drafted and enforced, and government heads should assert a presumption toward openness. Abuse of FOI exemptions should not be tolerated. In order for FOI Laws to remain effective in the face of increasingly digital governments, electronic recordkeeping standards need to be similarly well drafted and enforced. Information requests and public disclosure will only work if our governments’ information is well organized and categorized. The Federal Government faces systemwide failures to set policies governing the creation, processing, and eventually, disposition or preservation of official records. The results for public access and accountability will be dire without better guidance and enforcement from records managers. Haphazard organization and unclear guidelines threaten to complicate FOI requests and effectively erase a portion of our governments’ history, as official records get lost in the increasing quantity of electronic documents. Proactive government disclosure will only be possible if the information to be disclosed is handled guidelines and standards.
A Culture of Openness Ultimately, these mechanisms for public accountability can be thwarted when governments are controlled by those who seek to abuse the public trust. The hardest aspect of an ethical government to institutionalize is a culture of openness, where government is staffed by capable people who believe in the public’s right to know, and who pursue their jobs in good faith with the public’s interests at heart. This commission, with its public proceedings, interactive design, and timely mission, should be a step in that direction. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.
Resources Open Government Data Principles: http://resource.org/8_principles.html Federal Web Managers Council White Paper: http://www.usa.gov/webcontent/documents/Federal_Web_Managers_WhitePaper.pdf Electronic Recordkeeping Report: http://www.openthegovernment.org/otg/Managing%20The %20Public%27s%20Records%20.pdf FEC testimony: (digital copy submitted) Principles for Transparency: (digital copy submitted) Open House Project Blog: http://www.theopenhouseproject.com Open House Project Google Group: http://groups.google.com/group/openhouseproject
Agency Plan: 1.
Information Audit:Agencies should undertake a comprehensive audit of their information, and the processes they use to collect it. The audit should focus on providing a comprehensive inventory of all data collected by the agency, agency engagement online, and electronic record keeping practices. 1818 N. St. N.W. ▪ Suite 410 ▪ Washington, D.C. 20036 ▪ Ph: 202-742-1520 Fax: 202-742-1524
Data Handling: Agency databases should serve as the platform on which agencies function, and public access to data is only possible if agencies design their databases with specific outcomes in mind. The processes used to gather, organize, and transmit data within agencies, and to the public online, should be examined and upgraded, to increase the reach of vital government information. ◦
Paperbased processes should be digitized.
Electronic reporting systems should be devised for all filings and the information should be fed directly into online databases.
Coordinated metadata standards must be developed to allow for interoperability of all databases within an agency or department, and thoughout the government as a whole.
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and bulk data access must be implemented across all data sets, to allow for advanced analysis and programming.
The 8 Open Government Data Principles should be implemented, making all government data: complete, primary, timely, accessible, machine processable, nondiscriminatory, non proprietary, and licensefree.
Electronic Recordkeeping: The official records created by agency employees are the foundation for public information, digital preservation, and the operations of each agency. Electronic recordkeeping standards and enforcement have fallen behind, as agencies increasingly rely on electronic documents. New standards and enforcement should be developed to govern electronic records management throughout their lifecycle.
Agency Engagement Online: Agencies’ web presence should be considered a strategy for achieving agency goals and to enhance transparency—not just an extension of the communications department. Agencies should consider public input and online collaboration as potential strategies for all agency initiatives. Transparency in all operations should be adopted as a core agency value, and this should be pursued in both agency websites and in nonagency communities online, where social networks hold immense and largely untapped potential.
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