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When people talk about corporate cutbacks in mainstream journalism organizations, there’s almost a fervor about how our very democracy is in jeopardy because of the failings of Big Media in holding our government accountable. What such critiques fail to consider is that as citizens we can and will hold our government accountable, with or without the media apparatus.

One shining example of independent citizen action has been the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization launched a mere 15 months ago with the mission of bringing more transparency to the U.S. Congress through techno-activism. The group has had far-reaching success not only in making Congress more accountable to the people they are supposed to serve, but also in creating bi-partisan fervor in the blogosphere for reform on Capitol Hill. Though the Foundation’s grants and projects, average citizens have been given the tools and resources to make a difference.

To wit, here are some of the Sunlight Foundation’s accomplishments and projects so far:

> Brought together conservative and liberal bloggers in the Exposing Earmarks campaign to chase down earmarks in a labor bill last fall, which led to the Coburn-Obama bill. This legislation called for a publicly accessible online database detailing earmarks for all bills before Congress. President Bush signed it into law on September 26, 2006. [See UPDATE below for more on this law.]

> Set up Congresspedia as a “citizen’s encyclopedia of Congress,” where anyone can edit or write about issues before Congress. The difference between this and Wikipedia is that a paid editor actually oversees the editorial process and manages disputes among citizen editors.

> Tapped citizen journalists to help investigate which representatives in Congress had spouses on the payroll, finding that 19 spouses had been paid a total of $639,876 since Jan. 1, 2005.

> Put together a bi-partisan working group called the Open House Project which has been working in an ad hoc manner to make Congressional procedures more transparent — with the blessing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Their initial report is due out soon.

In addition to managing these projects, Sunlight Foundation has funded many other non-profits who are working on transparency for Congress. For example, Sunlight provided seed money for the hybrid professional/amateur journalism site NewAssignment.net (see an update about the site here) and a political project at the Center for Citizen Media.

“On the key point of bringing the federal government into the digital age and thereby vastly increasing its transparency and accountability, I think Sunlight is doing more good things on a wider front than anybody has ever before done,” said Mark Tapscott, conservative blogger and editorial page editor of the DC Examiner. “There is a stirring on the right about the importance of transparency issues and I nurture the hope that this might someday be a potential ground for restoring more civility and common purpose to our politics.”

InstaPundit blogger and Porkbusters co-founder Glenn Reynolds, who worked with Sunlight on the Exposing Earmarks campaign, seconds Tapscott in heaping praise on the Foundation for bridging the ideological divide.

“With the exception of a few at the fringes, the left and right blogosphere have more common ground than the divisiveness of today lets people realize,” Reynolds told me. “Coming from a background in actual politics, I’m probably more aware of the importance of crossing ideological and party lines to get things done than some bloggers, but the folks at Sunlight certainly get it.”

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Ellen Miller and Mike Klein

About the only thing I could fault Sunlight for is not being quite as transparent about their initial funding as they could be on their website. I talked in-depth to Sunlight’s executive director Ellen Miller, who explained that chairman Michael Klein gave the Foundation $3.5 million in seed money. She says that Klein has given to both major parties, though my research found that he had given far more to Democratic causes in the past, including $100,000 to Americans Coming Together (ACT) in the 2004 campaign cycle. ACT aimed to get President Bush out of office through get-out-the-vote drives.

The following is an edited version of my phone conversation with Miller, who described how the Sunlight Foundation was expanding to meet the growing demand for technical know-how by so many transparency groups.

How was the foundation started and what was the motivation behind launching it?

Ellen Miller: The motivation was a recognition that there’s a new intersection between politics and information, and the capacity of the new technologies and the Internet to put more data into the hands of citizens. More than just a one-way street, the connectivity of citizens to data about politicians was the genesis of the Sunlight Foundation, whose goal is transparency for what goes on in Congress — on steroids. The steroids are the technology and Internet as tools to engage citizens and disseminate information, and create information in ways that citizens can actually use it.

That moves us into the mash-up arena. Someone might say, ‘I’m interested in people who contribute big bucks to candidates in my neighborhood.’ So you take that information and put it on Google Maps. It’s information about Congress in the information age.

The conversation about this started when I met Mike Klein, the co-founder with me. That was a conversation that started in September of 2005 about, ‘What do you do to create more attention to what goes on in Congress, and to put more pressure on Congress to pay attention to the public?’ Would giving out prizes for investigative journalism stimulate that conversation? I thought those days for prizes for journalists had come and gone.

There was a need for digitizing information that was out there to make it more easily available, and finding technological ways to make it more accessible and usable by the public to put more pressure on Congress to tear down the firewall that they have effectively set up around themselves…Mike offered to put up the first seed grant and we were up and running by January 2006, and formally announced it in April 2006 with the Congresspedia project.

So Mike Klein put up the money initially to start the foundation?

Miller: Yes, he gave us $3.5 million initially. The Sunlight Foundation is a 501c3, and we also created a 501c4, which ran our Punch Clock Campaign [where people earned $1,000 bounties for getting members of Congress to make their schedule public]. So $3 million went to the 501c3 and half a million went to our 501c4. At the end of last year, we received another $2 million from the Omidyar Network, which was a great imprimatur plus a necessary cash infusion. And we’ll be soliciting more investors as we move forward.

What’s the difference between a 501c3 and a 501c4?

Miller: A 501c3 is a purely a public education activity and that’s the vast majority of what we do. Both organizations are completely non-partisan. A c4 does more grassroots work, so when we came up with the idea of mounting a campaign to get all representatives from Congress to post their schedules online, that [lobbying] can’t be done with tax-exempt money. Particularly in an election year, the IRS is afraid that you’ll do electioneering work. So we do it under the c4, which is called the Sunlight Network.

You said you are expanding this year. What do you have planned?

Miller: The Sunlight Labs began as a little experiment. We funded a number of major databases, and we said to the groups, ‘We’ll give you some technical advice on how to do this in a way that’s API’able so you can spread the information, and here’s what Web 2.0 means.’ And they were essentially clueless on new ways to use the web, so we brought on a couple of people to provide the technical expertise and to do some of our own fun stuff — like the Google Maps mash-up for earmarks. It was so successful and we had so many demands for our time that it just expanded our capacity to meet it.

So the Labs organization will expand dramatically, and we’re going to hire a CTO [chief technology officer] for the whole organization including the Labs and all the projects. Everything we do has a technology aspect to it…We’ve had requests for advice from lots of people, for design, for development issues, for database issues, and we’ve given freely of our time. So we need to bring on more technical experts, more database experts to help meet the demands on our time.

Bill Allison, who is our senior fellow doing investigative work and distributed journalism projects — we’ve added another staffer to work with him on that. They’re [launching] a real-time investigative blog. As they’re doing investigative work, they’re going to blog about it because we don’t have the capacity to be investigative journalists per se. Bill comes from that world, as does Anupama Narayanswamy, but there’s more leads than they can follow. So counter to most investigative journalists, they’re going to blog about what they’re doing and who they’re calling, and if someone else picks it up and runs with it, then great, they can pursue something else.

What other projects are you working on this year?

Miller: So far this year, we’ve already launched something called OpenCongress.org, which is a joint project with the Participatory Politics Foundation. It’s done remarkably well and had lots of kudos. Not only is the blogging smart, but we’re now collecting through Technorati and Google search the mainstream media and blogging that is being done about specific bills [before Congress]. For me as a policy wonk, it’s interesting to see what people are writing about as bills move through Congress.

We launched a mash-up contest in which we’re asking the world to give us their best mash-ups based on Congressional information in databases. We have some amazing entries already.

Our Open House Project is the first time I’ve worked on a listserv project where people get together to work on something but they’ve never met. It’s about the details on how Congress operates, and what is the low-hanging fruit, easy things Congress could do to digitize information and make a dramatic difference for transparency. The project has been blessed by [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, and we have about 100 people on the listserv. We have about 20 extroardinary participants, and we’ve picked out seven areas of recommendation, and we’ll be coming forward with a report on that in the coming weeks.

One of the things that we hadn’t done before was actual lobbying in Congress. We now have a half-time lobbyist in Congress and she is representing the Sunlight positions on the Hill. So we had to develop what our short-term reform proposals were and put them online. We’ve actually made some headway in the Senate on these, and are working on getting them matched in the House. These are getting more timely filing of reports, and more accountability for earmarks in bills and amendments. We’re trying to get more meaningful lobbyist disclosure. We’re having some trouble with that one.

So you and Klein both come from the liberal side of politics?

Miller: Yeah, well I’ve run non-partisan organizations for some time, so my track record is more in the non-partisan non-profit arena, because I ran a group that advocated public financing [of campaigns], so people believed that I’m a great liberal. But it’s not like public financing is a liberal or conservative point of view, it’s about the only way to curb spending. The Center for Responsive Politics has always been non-partisan, and people have said to me that I’m always tougher on Democrats. My flip response is that maybe they should know better.

We are decidedly non-partisan in terms of our work, and so is Mike [Klein]. If you look at his record, and I did when I first met him, he’s not a huge political giver. He has given to Democrats and has given some to Republicans. The Republican Party says that we’re liberals, but our record doesn’t reflect that.

It’s hard when you’re doing work about transparency, because people will easily turn the focus to you and say, ‘what about you guys?’ How can you prove yourselves to be non-partisan?

Miller: I don’t think anything that Sunlight has done has been partisan. I have never worked with more conservatives than we work with now. On earmarks and on transparency, we work very closely with a group of people from Porkbusters to Mark Tapscott of the Examiner — true conservatives who believe in transparency. Our allies are at least equally balanced — which I’ve never had before — if not tilted toward the conservative side.

Why is that?

Miller: It’s this world of the Internet, where people are either non-political or very libertarian. A lot of the technologists I’ve met that are political would be described as libertarians, and I don’t know what libertarians are. They’re an interesting breed. They’re interested in politics but let everyone figure it out for themselves, and that’s the heart of what transparency is about. So we fit neatly into that world…The work itself is without politics. What people do with it can be hugely political.

How would you gauge the current Congress so far on transparency issues?

Miller: One of the things we’ve learned this year from the Open House Project is that there are institutional barriers to bringing greater transparency. For example, there are three or four different places that members of Congress need to check in with before putting information on their websites. In my day on the Hill, this related to newsletters they sent to constituents, which most don’t really do anymore. But the rules that applied to correspondence with constituents are still being governed as if they are sending out letters to each constituent.

As far as new legislative proposals to provide more transparency for citizens, I think there’s a general reluctance to doing that. That goes to the first point, which is, ‘Do we really want people to know where our money is going? Do we really want people to know who we are meeting with?’ Here’s a good example. Our proposal for lobbyist reform is rather modest. Currently lobbyists have to report what bills they are lobbying for, but then only if they are lobbying in the House or Senate. We suggested to members that that’s not enough information, that we want to know which offices lobbyists are meeting with. Seemed very reasonable to me. But it was a non-starter. Then everyone will know who the lobbyists are meeting with, and members are not interested in that kind of transparency.

They have created a very small world in which they live, and part of what Sunlight is about is creating a new culture of transparency. You can go online and go to Flickr and search for Ellen Miller and you will find pictures of Ellen Miller on Flickr and so be it, that’s the way it is. But Congress isn’t quite that relaxed about it yet, but the culture is changing.

It’s difficult because Congress has to reform itself.

Miller: Well, the Open House Project will propose things that the Speaker’s office could just pick up the phone and change. Some of them will require rules changes and some will require legislation. I think if we wait for Congress to reform itself, it will take too long. That’s why we’re creating a community of people who care about an issue… if you call it ‘an issue about transparency,’ then everyone will yawn. But maybe they won’t yawn. We now have a Facebook community that one of our young staffers started. It’s not big, but it’s about 500 or 600 people, and when we ask them to do stuff, they do stuff!

Maybe there’s more potential here for creating a community. When we did the earmarks database, we put it on Google Maps, and we asked citizens to do some research. That group hung together for that project and we got the Coburn-Obama law passed. We smoked out who was responsible for the secret hold on the bill. That’s pretty wonky kind of stuff, so I think it’s possible to create citizen pressure. The culture is changing about the notion of transparency. There is a crack in the door with four members posting their schedules [publicly].

You have investigative journalists on your blog, and this has been a big topic in journalism circles — what is the future for investigative journalism? Do you see a role for non-profits and for citizen journalists in doing investigative work in the future?

Miller: It’s certainly a growing role. We’ve been a huge fan and contributor to Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net project. We’ve also made a grant to Dan Gillmor, who I think is one of the leaders in this field as well. Will it replace the mainstream media? I doubt it. But can it become another powerful center for investigative journalism? I think it will, and it will drag the mainstream media back into this world. It’s a great thing to see developing because it’s dying in the mainstream media. We’ve had great success with the projects we’ve done.

How do you motivate people to get involved in your citizen journalism projects?

Miller: I don’t know the answer to that. We have an email list of about 6,000 people, so it’s not a very big list. It’s clearly a very interested list…The first two distributed reporting projects were launched on Friday afternoons, much to my dismay, because what could be worse than that timing, but they were done by Monday. We didn’t even have to send them to the [email] list.

*****

What do you think about the work that the Sunlight Foundation is doing? How can non-profits pick up the investigative slack left by cutbacks at mainstream media organizations? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Miller and Klein by Esther Dyson via Flickr — what else?

UPDATE: In the comments, Mark Tapscott provides more background on how the Coburn-Obama bill started its life:

The pivotal moment in the campaign for passage of the bill came when N.Z. Bear of Truth Laid Bear suggested the effort to identify the senator behind the secret hold. That focused MSM attention on the issue and gave the storyline good guys (us) and bad guys (Ted Stevens, Robert Byrd, et. al.). But Coburn had been working on the proposal for a long time before bloggers or the MSM discovered it and there were a number of folks in the think tank/non-profit activism community thinking along similar lines.

Back in 2001, for example, when I was at The Heritage Foundation, Bill Beach, director of Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis, and I talked at length about creating a federal spending database on the Internet and at one point talked seriously with Gary Bass at OMB Watch about a joint effort. It didn’t happen because of budget limits, but then Gary went on and created what became the Coburn-Obama precursor. I think in many respects Gary deserves credit as an unsung hero of the movement for Coburn-Obama passage. The New York Times’ Jason DeParle also did a solid story on the movement last July 3.

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