The Empire (State) Strikes Back (Against Corruption)

This week, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman launched NYOpenGovernment.com, a new website that his office touts as a means for “voters, the media and government watchdogs hold state government accountable” by providing the public online access to government data on campaign contributions, lobbying, and state contracts.

“Secrecy breeds corruption, while transparency generates confidence,” Attorney General Schneiderman said, in a prepared statement. “New York Open Government will help the public keep an eye on what their government is doing in order to deter corruption and increase confidence in the public sector. This site is a one-stop-shop for New Yorkers demanding up-to-date and comprehensive information about their government.”

The launch of the new site fulfills a commitment that Schneiderman made as a candidate for Attorney General. NYOpenGovernment.com is an expansion of Project Sunlight, which went online in 2007 under then NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

The citizens of New York could use a boost to confidence about their state government. According to a release from the NY AG’s office, at least 20 current or former elected members of the legislative and executive branches of the New York State government were either accused or convicted of crimes per the last decade.

“It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about this launch,” said Laurenellen McCann, national policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, when asked for comment. “NYOpenGovernment.com demonstrates a genuine commitment to public oversight that more states should seek to emulate. Without the online release of information about campaign contributions, lobbying, state contracts, and other “influence data”, no government can really claim to be fulfilling its promise to be open or to provide open data.”

The data on the new website is sourced directly from the relevant state agencies. Campaign finance data come from the Board of Elections, lobbyist data from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, state contract data from the Comptroller’s office, state corporation data from the Department of State, and bill information from the legislature. According to the attorney general’s office, the AG receives raw data, in different formats, from the agencies when they update their own respective websites.

“What’s worth noting about New York’s new platform is that it not only releases this important accountability data, it also provides contextualization for it, allowing citizens to access the info through centralized searches,” said McCann. In fact, this is the primary approach behind sites like Ethics.gov, or Sunlight’s Influence Explorer.com and one that we consider a best practice.”

It’s also worth noting that the site’s Web design is clean, uncluttered and loads quickly on a mobile device, if not in a mobile-optimized version.

If media and citizens have requests for data or questions about quality or accuracy, the AG’s office established a primary point of contact: Jason Ortiz, the director of special projects, and provided an official phone number (212-416-8743) and email address: Jason.Ortiz@ag.ny.gov.

The introduction of site was parsed by numerous members of New York’s good government community:

“With New York Open Government, Attorney General Schneiderman is showing clear leadership in making to government more transparent and accountable,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media and Chairman of the NY Tech Meetup, in a prepared statement. “By updating New York Open Government online tools and features A.G. Schneiderman is demonstrating that in the 21st century, the public’s access to information regarding how their government officials act must be easily searchable and accessible online.”

“We’re excited by Attorney General Schneiderman’s New York Open Government website,” said John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, in a prepared statement. “We applaud the attorney general’s efforts to harness the immense power of the internet to increase government transparency and accountability. We look forward to working with A.G. Schneiderman to help New York Open Government achieve its full potential as a potent tool for restoring trust and confidence in our state government.”

“New York Open Government is an important resource for New Yorkers who want to know how their government works,” said Susan Lerner, Executive Director, Common Cause/NY, in a prepared statement. “We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for helping to bring New York’s information services into the 21st century, and significantly improving access to publicly available data. Government transparency is essential to an engaged electorate.”

“In the information age, New Yorkers want and expect access to the hard data that shows what their government is up to,” said Russ Haven, legislative counsel for NYPIRG. “Attorney General Schneiderman’s New York Open Government website provides a ‘one-stop shopping’ place for average New Yorkers as well as sophisticated researchers to find information about elected officials and those seeking to influence them. The features will make it easier to access, organize and ultimately make sense of information as never before. This is an important resource for New Yorkers trying to keep tabs on government.”

What’s next?

There’s an additional bright spot here, with respect to cost to taxpayers: no expensive contract to a systems integrator was involved. The office of the Attorney General built the site in house, with no consultants. According to the NY attorney general’s office, hat they’re committed to sustaining and enhancing the site, including adding more datasets, improved search and a trackers for the most viewed data.

If, in the future, it may be possible for citizens to share information about government programs, practices or officials into the their social networks, it will a step ahead for networked accountability. “We’ve seen the power of social media for democracy movements around the world,” said NY Attorney General Schneiderman, in a prepared statement. “By making this tool compatible with multiple media platforms, we hope to empower our own citizens to hold their government accountable.”

The AG’s office looks at the website like an example of “living, breathing and evolving public accountability,” and emphasized that they will listen to its users and implement their suggestions “when it makes sense” to do so.

Here’s one suggestion, from this native of upstate New York: set up a data.nyopengovernment.com so that citizens, media, developers, advocates and state employees can see, browse and download the data in bulk. Currently, a user can search for an individual and then view all the relevant records, as for Mario Cuomo, with the capacity to download the data as a .CSV, Excel file or XML.

While New York should and is being lauded for this step forward to make open government data available in open, structured form only, its public officers could help to enable an ecosystem of networked accountability through enabling the creation of Web services, not just new websites. The next evolution in open government is not to encourage citizens to visit a website but to release the data that site is built upon so that it finds them, when they use search engines, social networks, media websites or civic applications like OpenStates.

Can the Internet help disrupt the power of Chicago Lobbyists through transparency?

Civic coder Derek Eder  wrote in this week to share his most recent project: Chicago Lobbyists. “This is probably the biggest, most impactful project I’ve worked on to date,” says Eder.” It has a lot of potential to inform and change people’s perception of government and lobbyists, and best of all, the city is cooperating with us do it.”
Eder and Nick Rougeux, working in collaboration with Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, have earned well-deserved recognition in the open government community for LookAtCook, a beautiful approach to visualizing budget data. Now Eder is onto something new: making the actions of lobbyists more transparent.
“Chicago Lobbyists” visualizes all of the interactions and activities of Lobbyists with the City of Chicago in 2010. Each lobbyist has a profile page that lists clients, fees, expenses, and what they lobbied fo in front of city agencies, including the city council. Eder explains more:
Every company or organization that hired lobbyists (we call them clients) has a profile showing the lobbyists they hired, the actions they hired them to make, and the amount they paid them. Interestingly, the Salvation Army is the number one spender on lobbyists for 2010 at $380,000. All of their money was spent on just 2 lobbyists, and they look to mostly be regarding zoning and land transfer.
Each city agency on ChicagoLobbyists also has a page summarizing the activities of lobbyists them. According to the site, City Council is the most lobbied agency with 152 lobbyists seeking a total of 587 lobbying actions on a wide range of subjects.

Opening Chicago

In 2011, working to open government, the Chicago way now means developers collaborating with the city.
One of the most exciting parts about this project has been our interaction with the city, says, Eder, specifically chief data officer Brett Goldstein.
“After making a rough version of Chicago Lobbyists in late July, we found that a lot of lobbying data was missing from the datasets the city had published,” he said. “We met with Brett and his staff, explained what was missing, and by the end of August, they had updated their data with the pieces that were missing. We then took that new data and updated our site accordingly. With it, we are now able to tie clients to specific lobbying actions and show how much clients paid each lobbyist.”
More information about the project is available on the ChicagoLobbyists blog in “An Open Data Story: and “Chicago Lobbyists V2 Is Here.” Eder
notes that they’ve submitted Chicago Lobbyists to the Apps for Metro Chicago Grand Challenge. If you’re interested in examples of civic coding for cities, there’s no shortage of inspiration there

Agenda and details of Open Government Partnership “Power of Open” event announced

The details of the launch of the Open Government Partnership on September 20th are now public. Under Secretary of State Maria Otero, Brazilian Minister of State Jorge Hage and President Benigno S. Aquino III will be making keynote speeches, followed by senior government officials, business leaders and technologists, including eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee and Celtel founder Mo Ibrahim.

As I reported yesterday, 22 countries have committed to participate in the partnership now, with more to come.

The “Power of Open” event will be hosted by Google NYC. Given limited capacity for live attendance, a live stream of the event at the Open Gov Partnership YouTube channel will substantially increase the forum’s reach. The “Power of Open” agenda is embedded below.

Power of Open Agenda 9.6.11

How should whistleblowing work in the age of transparency?

Transparency movements have gone global. Open government, however, depends in part upon the ability of public servants and corporate insiders to blow the whistle on fraud, corruption or other conduct that is not in the interest of citizens or stakeholders. In the context of Wikileaks, the role of whistleblowing has taken on new meaning and scope in this age of transparency. Despite President Obama’s open government commitments, his administration has aggressively pursued whistleblowers over the past two and a half years.

It is in that context that the Advisory Committee on Transparency for the Transparency Caucus in the U.S. Congress hosted a public discussion on July 29, 2011 on the challenges federal whistleblowers face. Video of the hearing, provided courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation, is embedded below.

The panelists included:

  • Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy, Project on Government Oversight
  • Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel, U.S. Office of Special Counsel
  • Christian Sanchez, Border Patrol Agent, Customs & Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
  • Daniel Schuman, Moderator, Policy Counsel, the Sunlight Foundation
  • Micah Sifry, Co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum; author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency; Sunlight Foundation sr. technology advisor

People interested in government transparency will find it of considerable interest.

Even if the White House’s commitment to transparency is questioned, open government continues to grow globally, with new tools for transparency coming online every month.

Dyson at the eG8: You don’t need to be from the Internet to believe in liberty or free speech

At the eG8, 20th century ideas clashed with the 21st century economy. The inaugural eG8 forum, held in Paris before the G-8 summit of global leaders, showed that online innovation and freedom of expression still need strong defenders. As Nancy Scola reported at techPresident, at the at the eG8, civil society groups restaked their claim to the ‘Net.

Several attendees, many who had traveled from the United States, strongly questioned whether the Internet should be regulated in the ways that Sarkozy implied. The “value of internet is not just efficiency but also transparency,” tweeted Esther Dyson, “a much better regulator than government could ever be.”

I spoke further in with Dyson in an interview embedded below. What matters about the eG “is that you have a lot of people being exposed to one another and you have a lot of government people being exposed to people they don’t normally listen to,” said Dyson. “As usual, it’s not what happens up on stage, or what happens on the video: it’s what happens on the tweets, in the personal interactions, in the dinner afterwards, and in the back hall of the meeting. And that – that was positive. The world doesn’t change overnight, mostly. ”

She spoke to the concerns of civil society about eG8 recommendations: “It is sort of justified. Some of them were precanned. I actually sat down with my guy after doing my panel and changed them. I don’t think that happened with all of them. But again, the community is aroused: it’s going to make its points around this.”

Dyson also emphasized the universality of some of these concerns and what’s at stake. “You don’t need to be ‘from the Internet’ to believe in liberty or free speech.”

How are startups helping the global transparency movement? “They’re providing tools to make the data meaningful,” said Dyson. “They’re providing tools for people to share the information. They’re providing the communication tools, again, that allow from everything from Wikileaks to people communicating with reporters. Tools like your phone, connected to the Internet, so that you can record interviews not just with me but with all of the other people you talk to, upload them, people can share them, people can comment on them. That’s all technology.”

Dyson shared other thoughts on the eG8 and Internet freedom, including how entrepreneurs are changing the world through their work. Dyson also shared an insight that transcends technology:

“Even when you have a revolution, what makes the revolution works is what changes in people’s minds, and that’s what’s going on here,” said Dyson.

“The world is changing. People in government are not special. They should be as transparent as everybody else. People deserve privacy. Officials, governments, institutions, they all should be transparent. That’s new thinking, and it was being heard.”

Senator Carper fears e-gov budget cuts are “penny wise, pound foolish”

As Daniel Schuman wrote on the Sunlight Foundation’s blog today, Delaware Senator Tom Carper wrote yesterday to federal CIO Vivek Kundra about the effects of a 75% cut to e-government funding at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), including questions about how the Obama administration intends to go forward. For those that have not been tracking the issue closely, Congress and the President collectively cut OMB’s Electronic Government Fund from $34m in FY2010 to $8m in FY2011.

Schuman and the Sunlight Foundation originally discovered proposed deep cuts to e-government funding during the budget crisis weeks ago and have been reporting on every new wrinkle in the story.

In the last few weeks there’s been a whirlwind of news and speculation about what will happen to the federal government’s online transparency efforts. From the first rumble of budget trouble to a frantic search for information on when the sites would go dark, and an extended legislative give-and-take over funding levels, the storm has cleared enough to know what’s left standing.

The way forward for these online open government platforms, as Schuman notes, isn’t immediately clear. Now, Senator Carper (D-DE) has become more directly involved:

I remain concerned with how the new lower funding level for the E-Gov Fund might not only impede the progress made thus far to make government open and transparent, but also harm efforts to cut wasteful and duplicative spending in the federal government.

The future of these programs have already earned bipartisan support, with Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) making a personal pledge to use his reprogramming authority as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to keep many sites alive. “We’ll find a way to keep OpenGov sites open, but need to make data actually accessible/usable,” tweeted Issa this week, linking to a story on NextGov on softening the budget blow to transparency websites.

Improved accountability, efficiency and civic utility from open government data, in other words, are issues that both sides of the aisle appear to support, although it remains unclear why, if that is so, the original budget was cut by 94%.

Senator Carper’s letter is embedded below.

Letter From Senator Carper to Vivek Kundra about the E-Gov Fund

Week in Review: Top Gov 2.0 and Open Government Stories

US Capitol Blooms

Open government made an appearance in popular culture, albeit not in an admiring sense. At the start of the week, Jon Stewart and the Daily Show mocked the Obama administration and the president for a perceived lack of transparency.

Stewart and many other commentators have understandably wondered why the president’s meeting with open government advocates to receive a transparency award wasn’t on the official schedule or covered by the media. A first hand account of the meeting from open government advocate Danielle Brian offered useful perspective on the issues that arose that go beyond a soundbite or one liner:

Gary, OMB Watch’s executive director, focused on the places where we have seen real change, including the Open Government Directive, the Executive Orders on Classified National Security and Controlled Unclassified Information, emphasis on affirmative disclosures of government information; and the President’s support of reporters’ privilege and shield law, as well as whistleblower protections.

Lucy, executive director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, pointed out that this was the first president in her 30 years of working in this field who had invited open government advocates into the Oval Office. She specifically thanked him for his strong support of a reporters’ shield law, which he affirmed he continues to support. Tom, executive director for the National Security Archive, emphasized that when it comes to FOIA reform and implementation we know it isn’t just a ship of state, but an entire flotilla including rowboats. And that while there has been notable improvement according to the National Security Archive’s survey of agencies, there continues to need be a need for leadership from the top to change cultures across the vast swath of government agencies. He also noted that we all believe the information we want to see is not simply that which is useful for consumers, but also that which holds the government accountable.

I knew my topic was likely to be sensitive. I began by thanking the President for his strong support of whistleblower protections, and noted that it was not for lack of effort on the part of the White House that the legislation didn’t pass at the end of the last Congress.

I noted, however, that the current aggressive prosecution of national security whistleblowers is undermining this legacy. That we need to create safe channels for disclosure of wrongdoing in national security agencies. That we need to work harder to shrink the amount of over-classified materials that unnecessarily prompt leak prosecutions.

The President shifted in his seat and leaned forward. He said he wanted to engage on this topic because this may be where we have some differences. He said he doesn’t want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops. He differentiated these leaks from those whistleblowers exposing a contractor getting paid for work they are not performing. I was careful not to interrupt the President, but waited until he was done. I pointed out that few, if any, in our community would disagree with his distinction—but that in reality the current prosecutions are not of those high-level officials who regularly leak to the press to advance their policy agendas. Instead, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is prosecuting exactly the kind of whistleblower he described, for example one from the National Security Agency.

The President then did something that I think was remarkable. He said this is an incredibly difficult area and he wants to work through how to do a better job in handling it. He also agreed that too much information is classified, and asked us to work with his office on this. He wasn’t defensive nor was he dismissive. It was perhaps the dream moment for an advocate—hearing the most senior policymaker agree with you and offer to work together to tackle the problem.

Brian’s account is the most comprehensive account of the meeting on open government online. The irony that it was not recorded and released to the American people is, however, inescapable. For anyone tracking the progress of the Open Government Directive, the last six months have been an up and down experience. It was clear back in September that in the United States, open government remains in beta.

According to doctoral research by University of Texas academic, there are 358 open government projects in federal government. Former White House deputy chief technology officer Beth Noveck wrote about the semantics and the meaning of good government and open government mean in this context. One takeaway: don’t mistake open innovation policies for transparency guarantees.

The current White House deputy CTO for innovation, Chris Vein, wrote on the White House blog this week that the one year anniversary of open government plans were “a testament to hard work” at the agencies. As Vein acknowledged, “while there is always more to be done, we are proud of the important work that agencies have done and are doing to change the culture of government to one that encourages transparency and facilitates innovation.  We are committed to maintaining and building upon this momentum to make our Nation stronger and to make the lives of Americans better.”

Naturally, some projects are always going to be judged more as more or less effective in delivering on the mission of government than others. An open government approach to creating a Health Internet may be the most disruptive of them. For those that expected to see rapid, dynamic changes in Washington fueled by technology, however, the bloom has long since come off of the proverbial rose. Open government is looking a lot more like an ultramarathon than a 400 yard dash accomplished over a few years.

That said, something different is going on during what Micah Sifry has aptly called the age of transparency. We’re in new territory here, with respect to the disruption that new connection technologies represent to citizens, society and government. It’s worth taking stock of what’s happened recently. It’s been a while since I first posted a Gov 2.0 Week in Review at Radar, and three months since the 2010 Gov 2.0 year in review.

There’s a lot happening in this space. Following is a quick digest that might provide some perspective to those who might think that open government is a better punchline than policy.

1. The government stayed open. The budget crisis on Capitol Hill overshadowed every other issue this past week. It’s harder for a government to be open if it’s closed. The secrecy of the shutdown negotiations left folks over at the Sunlight Foundation wondering about how open government principles matched up to reality.

2. Proposed deep cuts to funding for open government data platforms like Data.gov or the IT Dashboard appear to be least partially restored in the new budget. That will likely salve (some of) the concerns of advocates like Harlan Yu, who wrote about what we would lose if we lost Data.gov. John Wonderlich’s questions on the budget deal, however, include one on exactly how much funding was restored.

3. FCC.gov relaunched as an open government platform. In any other week, this story would have led the list open government news. Having sat out the Aughts, FCC.gov stepped into the modern age FCC managing director Steve Van Roekel and his team worked hard to bring Web 2.0 principles into the FCC’s online operations. Those principles include elements of open data, platform thinking, collective intelligence, and lightweight social software. What remains to be seen in the years ahead is how much incorporating Web 2.0 into operations will change how the FCC operates as a regulator. The redesign was driven through an open government process that solicited broad comment from the various constituencies that visit FCC.gov. The beta.FCC.gov isn’t just a site anymore, however: it’s a Web service that taps into open source, the cloud, and collective intelligence. In the world of Gov 2.0, that’s a substantial reframing of what government can do online.

4. What happens to e-government in a shutdown? This near miss forced hundreds of thousands of people to consider how to make wired government go dark. That discussion should not end with this latest resolution.

5. The first NASA Open Source Summit explored why open source is a valuable tool for the space agency. Open source is a pillar of NASA’s open government plan.

6. The Russian blogosphere came under attack, quashing an online parliament initiative. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see if a Russian Gov 2.0 conference next week addresses the issue of press freedoms or open government transparency.

7. Simpl launched as platform to bridge the connection between social innovators and government.

8. National Builder launched as a new online activism platform.

9. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) reintroduced the Public Online Information Act. With this transparency bill, the federal government would acknowledge the Internet, opined Mother Jones.

10. SeeClickFix launches its Facebook app.. “It looks like the entire SeeClickFix experience has been ported over to the Facebook environment,” writes Dan Kennedy. “Users can report problems and pinpoint them on a Google map, thus alerting government officials and the news media. I am far from being the world’s biggest Facebook fan, but it’s a smart move, given how much time people spend there.”

Editor’s Note This is by no means a definitive, comprehensive list. For instance, there’s plenty of open government news happening in countries around the world, from corruption mashups in India to the transparency challenges in various states. For a daily dose of transparency, make sure to read the Sunlight Foundation’s blog IBM’s Business of Government blog has also posted a weekly round up. If you have more stories that came across your desktop, inbox or television this week, please share them in the comments.

Samantha Power: Transparency has gone global

Innovations in democratic governance have been and likely always will be a global phenomenon. Samantha Power, senior director and special assistant for multilateral affairs and human rights at the White house, highlighted the ways in which platforms and initiatives for transparency in other countries are growing on the White House blog yesterday.

While “Sunshine Week” may be an American invention, the momentum for greater transparency and accountability in government is a global phenomenon. In countries around the world, governments and civil society groups are taking new and creative steps to ensure that government delivers for citizens and to strengthen democratic accountability.

From Kenya to Brazil to France to Australia, new laws and platforms are giving citizens new means to ask for, demand or simply create greater government transparency. As Power observed, open government is taking root in India, where the passage of India’s Right to Information Act and new digital platforms have the potential to change the dynamic between citizens and the immense bureaucracy.

Power listed a series of global transparency efforts, often empowered by technology, that serve as other useful examples of “innovations in democratic governance” on every continent

  • El Salvador and Liberia recently passed progressive freedom of information laws, joining more than 80 countries with legislation in place, up from only 13 in 1990;
  • A few weeks ago in Paris, six new countries from Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East met the high standards of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), empowering citizens with unprecedented information about payments made for the extraction of natural resources;
  • Brazil and South Africa are pioneering innovative tools to promote budget transparency and foster citizen engagement in budget decision-making, along with tens of other countries that are making budget proposals and processes open to public input and scrutiny;
  • Civil society groups are developing mechanisms to enable citizens to keep track of what happens in legislatures and parliaments, including impressive web portals such as votainteligente.cl in Chile and mzalendo.com in Kenya; and
  • Experiments in citizen engagement in Tanzania, Indonesia, and the Philippines, are demonstrating that citizen efforts to monitor the disbursement of government funds for education, health, and other basic services, actually decrease the likelihood of corruption and drive better performance in service delivery.

There’s a long road ahead for open government here in the United States. While improving collaboration and transparency through open government will continue to be difficult nuts to crack, it looks like “Uncle Sam” could stand to learn a thing or two from the efforts and successes of other countries on transparency. Addressing FOIA reform and better mobile access to information are two places to start.

For more on how open government can have a global impact, click on over to this exclusive interview with Samantha Power on national security, transparency and open government.