Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Sunlight Foundation - Making Government Accountable and Transparent

I recently watched a TEDx talk by Martha Mendoza, a writer for the Associated Press, about the importance of open government.  Mendoza listed several instances when the uncovering of government documents resulted in the preservation and safety of lives.  She explained how government documents are just pieces of paper, or just electronic files, sitting in the archives, but that, when you “bring in the sunshine”, when you bring them out, they speak the truth, “and the truth always matters…and the truth sets us free” (TEDx Talks, 2012).  (A little clich√©, but she makes a great point!)

The Sunlight Foundation, like Mendoza, advocates an open and transparent government, and the increase of public access to government information.  It is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that was founded in 2006 by Ellen Miller, a political activist, and Michael Klein, a securities lawyer.  Miller and Klein started the foundation over concerns about the influence of money and relationships and a fear of corruption in Congress.  They were not the only ones with that fear.  According to a 2006 CNN poll, half of Americans believed most Congress members were corrupt, and thirty-six percent believed their own representative was corrupt (CNN, 2006).  Both of those numbers were higher than they were earlier in the year, indicating a niche, perhaps, for an organization such as the Sunlight Foundation.

The goal of the Sunlight Foundation is to increase transparency and accountability in the United States government by using the power of the Internet.  Much government information is considered “public”, but not all information is released instantaneously.  Even then, print resources can take time to travel or acquire.  Part of the foundation’s mission states, “We are committed to improving access to government information by making it available online, indeed redefining ‘public’ information as meaning ‘online,’” (Garvin, 2012).  The Sunlight Foundation believes that government information should be made available in real-time in order to be truly open and transparent.   

In order to achieve its goals, the Sunlight Foundation encourages citizen and blogger participation in aggregating existing government information, digitizing new information, and advocating policy changes to build a more open government.  They also work with software developers, local transparency activists, and journalists by “involving them in distributed research projects, hack-a-thons, targeted lobbying and training” (Sunlight Foundation, 2013).  The Sunlight Foundation website provides information on how to get involved.  It even encourages involvement by awarding grants to those who start innovative projects that will increase government transparency and accountability.

One of the initial concerns of the Sunlight Foundation was the influence of money on political relationships.  This concern is reflected in the foundation’s funding policies.  The Sunlight Foundation is funded by contributions, but there are strict guidelines, which are clearly stated on the foundation’s website, under which contributions may be accepted.  For example, “No project support will be accepted that could potentially provide tangible benefit to the donor nor enhance his/her professional or personal interests” (Sunlight Foundation, 2013).  Furthermore, all accepted contributions are listed on the foundation’s website by year.  In this sense of openness and transparency, the Sunlight Foundation practices what it preaches.

The Sunlight Foundation has played an active role in legislative reform on the issues of open and transparent government and increased access to government information.  The organization has helped write and revise bills that have been introduced to Congress. It advocated many other bills that would increase access to government information.  Not all of the bills have been voted on, and not all of those that were have passed.  But there is clear movement forward.  Change is happening.  Government is becoming more open, more transparent, and the public has more access to government information than ever before.  The Sunlight Foundation is helping “bring in the sunshine” on government information.  

Check them out: The Sunlight Foundation

CNN. (2006). Poll: Half of Americans think congress is corrupt. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/10/19/congress.poll/index.html
Garvin, P. (2012). The Sunlight Foundation. Online, 36(5), 20-24. Sunlight Foundation.  (2013). Sunlight Foundation.  Retrieved from http://www.sunlightfoundation.com
TEDx Talks. (2012, September 19). Why open government is so crucial to our society – Martha Mendoza. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzDE7D52zlA

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