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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

The Sunlight Foundation uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.

The Sunlight Foundation is:

A think-tank that develops and encourages new policies inside the government to make it more open and transparent.
A campaign to engage citizens in demanding the policies that will open government and hold their elected officials accountable for being transparent.
An investigative organization that uses the data we uncover to demonstrate why we need new policies that free government data.
A grant-giving institution that provides resources to organizations using technology to further our mission and create community
An open source technology community that revolves around the Sunlight Foundation’s core mission

Sunlight Foundation is not verified as a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

Sep 28, 2016

LEARNINGS: The Center for Open Data Enterprise released the results of its open data roundtables over the past year in a new report. Their research contains recommendations from agencies and the users of their data which will be broadly valuable to governments of other nations and states.

BENE: We were thrilled to hear Congressmen Hultgren, Moulton, Farentold, Hurd and Meadows share such clear, unequivocal support for open data and the OPEN Government Data Act. You can hear more from them in a series of videos on our blog. [READ MORE]

TRADE TRANSPARENCY: The U.S. Trade Representative didn't include the recommendations that we joined with our open government allies in suggesting for its 2016 open government plan. We hope Congress will take up and pass H.R. 6141, the Promoting Transparency in Trade Act, to enact much-needed reforms. [EFF]

IT'S ON:TransparencyCamp is happening from October 14-15 in Cleveland. Please tune in to #TCamp16 for updates on Twitter, register and submit a session idea! [READ MORE]

CAMPAIGN 2016

  • Tens of millions of people watched the first presidential debate between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. While open government didn't come up directly, Trump was asked about his tax returns. Good news. It would be even better if he disclosed them: The public doesn't know whether Trump pays any federal income taxes or not. [Sunlight]

NATIONAL

  • The White House released a fact sheet documenting their work on open data over the past eight years as part of its first Open Data Summit. Sunlight was honored to be part of the event. You can watch archived video at Livestream.com. We'll share slides when they're all online.
  • While we agree with and hail the genuine progress that's been made, the Obama administration's legacy on open data and open government is much more complicated than that list suggests.
  • On that count, the Departments of Treasury, Interior, HUD, DHS and Veterans Affairs have still not complied with President Obama's executive order to release a new open government plan every two years. We've called on OMB to hold them accountable. [Sunlight]

STATE AND LOCAL

  • Cities like Scottsdale, Ariz. are connecting open data policy to a broader framework that normalizes the simple but potent expectation: public data is a public asset. Sunlight's Alyssa Doom digs into why using complementary policies to open up city data is crucial. [READ MORE]
  • Transparency isn't enough, but it's the basis for a conversation when a community has lost trust. [ACLU]
  • New York City Council has an impressive website in alpha. [NYC]

INTERNATIONAL

  • Today is the International Day for Universal Access to Information. [UNESCO]
  • As Zarah Rahman rightfully pointed out on the occasion, protecting the right to know is critical – and freedom of information should be tied to open data. [Engine Room]

EVENTS

Register_today_for_TransparencyCamp_2016_

Tired of your boss/friend/intern/uncle forwarding you this email every morning? You can sign up here and have it delivered direct to your inbox! You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout.

We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 a.m. on the Monday prior to the event.

Sep 28, 2016

On Tuesday evening, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, industry players and open data advocates gave a series of short talks at a reception prior to the Data Transparency Summit in Washington, D.C. Sunlight was there to talk about the importance of opening government data for transparency, accountability and public knowledge.

It was refreshing to hear such unequivocal support support for open data from congressmen, from implementing the DATA Act to codifying the gains of the past years into law through the OPEN Government Data Act.

We were thrilled to hear from Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, that House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is considering marking up the bill in the 114th Congress, and we strongly encourage the House to pass commonsense legislation that will make open government data the default in United States government, permanently.

Videos of the lawmakers speaking is below. (We apologize for the lighting. On this count, letting the sunshine in wasn't so ideal.)

Congressman Mark Meadows talks about open data and the DATA Act

Congressman Randy Hultgren talks about open data

Congressman Blake Farenthold talks about open data and the OPEN Government Data Act

Congressman Seth Moulton talks about open data

Socrata founder and CEO Kevin Merritt talks about the arc of open data

Sep 28, 2016

Four people standing in front of the city logo of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Scottsdale, Ariz., recently upped its open data efforts thanks to folks inside and outside government. From left to right: Brent Stockwell, Scottsdale city manager; Alyssa Doom, Sunlight open data project manager; Brad Hartig, Scottsdale CIO; Matt Raifman, GovEx senior implementation analyst.

We often speak singularly of an “open data policy,” but in practice, there may be multiple policies that take on proactive online publication of government information, working together to create a sturdier framework.

Scottsdale, Ariz. is a What Works City that is taking such an approach in crafting its open data reforms. Scottsdale is just one of many cities that understands how broad executive or legislative commitment to open data can be bolstered by more refined administrative policy mechanisms that lay out processes for implementation and accountability. Through our engagement with over 30 What Works Cities, we’ve recognized just how important added guidance may be to building out a sustainable open data program.

In a recommendation for Scottsdale City Council’s recently approved open data resolution, Scottsdale’s city manager and IT Department laid out plans to draft and implement a supplemental administrative regulation to provide greater structure for the city’s open data. With this plan, Scottsdale follows the lead of many other cities, including San Jose, Seattle, Boston, New York and San Francisco, which sought to provide additional guidance to those actors involved in their open data program implementation, for example, departmental data coordinators or city officials tasked with overseeing municipal open data programs.

High-level support

An open data resolution typically implies top-down support from city leaders signifying to departmental employees that the city hopes to achieve specific goals through the creation of an open data program. Common “whereas” clauses relate to using open data to make government operations more transparent, achieve goals laid out in city strategic plans, increase public participation and break down the silos in which department-level data is often stored.

Resolutions often lay out broad tasks that a city will undertake to further these goals. For example, last month the Scottsdale City Council resolved to establish an open data portal, make public information open by default, safeguard sensitive information, require a report and review process, and establish a process for developing open data governance.

From support to action: Administrative policies and implementation guides

While high-level support for specific open data goals is an important component of a sustainable program, Sunlight has found that some of the most effective programs tend to include supplementary guidance. This guidance can come in several different forms that pertain to different actors in the open data process. Here are some examples:

  • Montgomery County’s Open Data Implementation Plan: This plan lays the groundwork for the county’s open data program that was created by the Montgomery County Open Data Act. It spells out processes for inventorying, prioritizing and publishing the county’s datasets.
  • San Jose’s Open Data Coordinator Guidebook: The city’s guidebook details responsibilities for the city department’s Open Data Coordinators and includes guidance for conducting a departmental data inventory.
  • Seattle’s Open Data Playbook: This playbook was created to lead city departments’ appointed open data champions through the process of publishing data from start to finish, and uniquely includes tips for engaging stakeholders inside and outside government.
  • Tulsa’s Open Data Advisory Board Charter: The city’s Charter establishes an Open Data Advisory Board and defines board members’ roles and responsibilities, as well as the program reporting structure.

Scottsdale is currently in the process of developing an administrative regulation to complement the city’s existing resolution, which jump-started the city’s open data program by solidifying council support for promoting openness, transparency and accountability. The measure could spell out parts of the city’s resolution that are broadly defined, including details about the procedures the IT department will establish in order to maintain the city’s open data portal, the responsibilities of those who are to administer and enforce the open data program and existing policies related to the release of data in the city.

Getting from policy to approach

It is often the case that open data resolutions or executive orders contain few of Sunlight’s Open Data Policy Guidelines. But while these documents might not be the appropriate place to spell out technical standards for releasing data online or the responsibilities of those individuals tasked with overseeing the open data prioritization process, complementary administrative policies can fill in the gaps.

Having one central policy that makes a commitment to proactive release of open government data is a crucial step in the right direction, but while it is necessary, it is not sufficient. The truth is that open data is not about one policy, or even one policy supplemented by administrative rules and guidance — open data isn’t even just about simply getting the data out there a central online location — instead an open data is a broader approach to more open, participatory governing, and it is an approach that will likely need to be embodied throughout the whole municipal code and throughout a given city’s communications and practice. This might mean updates to records management to make the connection to open data, revisiting procurement processes, and including open government data strategies in municipal engagement plans or in comprehensive community plans.

Cities like Scottsdale and the others mentioned above are taking a first step at connecting the dots from a centralized “open data policy” to a broader open data framework that normalizes an expectation that public data is a public asset. Here’s to hoping that these cities and others continue progress in this direction.

Sep 26, 2016

us-voter-registration-day-reminder-5701453076234240-hp

REGISTER THIS: Vote.gov was the #1 federal website all weekend long after Facebook prompted its users to visit and register to vote. Today's Google Doodle honored National Voter Registration Day by linking users to its homepage to its voter registration guide. [Sunlight]

GODAN: Our view on the recently concluded Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition Summit:

"Until the secretaries, ministers, academics, advocates and non-governmental organizations that are casting an optimistic light upon the role of open data recognize the persistent issues around copyright, proprietary data, and powerful industrial interests, the rhetoric is not going to yield real change. Sustainability, resilience and responsibility need to be the watchwords of the global open data movement in every context, in agriculture and nutrition as much as in telecommunications and consumer technology." [READ MORE]

ANALYZE THIS: Emily Shaw used Census data and tax records to learn which towns and cities depend the most on funds from court fines and forfeitures. Her conclusion: 

"Cities and their police departments may see increasing their dependence fines as a viable strategy for funding the government. However, the cost of running a revenue generation scheme through the criminal justice system is that things can very quickly get bad for the people who are required to pay for it. Municipalities can compound the financial hazard for the people who are fined by contracting with private probation collectors, who are allowed to add additional, legally-enforceable fees and interest to the amount that the court originally required.

To get details about how revenue-raising policing is working specifically, we need reporters to continue to dig into details and governments to respond to public records requests. Transparency and accountability must go together. In the meantime, the rest of us do have some public data sources which we can use to begin to answer the question." [READ MORE]

IT'S ON: As we noted last Friday, TransparencyCamp is happening from October 14-15 in Cleveland. Please tune in to #TCamp16 for updates on Twitter, register and submit a session idea! [READ MORE]

DISCLOSE: Sunlight joined the Campaign Legal Center and the Benton Foundation in filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission against Scripps' WCPO-TV Cincinnati because the agency isn't enforcing the law on political ad disclosure. [B&C]

THANK YOU:  Seamus Kraft collected heartwarming memories from former staffers and our allies about what Sunlight has meant to them and the world. [Medium]

REFLECTIONS: Kin Lane wrote about what people can learn from Sunlight Labs (stay tuned for more news) and Nathaniel Heller explored what he found frustrating about the situation.

CAMPAIGN 2016

  • Tonight will be one of the biggest nights of the 2016 presidential campaign, when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton face off at Hoffstra University at 9:00 PM ET. You can watch the forum on broadcast TV, cable news or in approximately one bazillion different livestreams – and more, as Christine Cupaiuolo reported, from virtual reality to social media and fact-checking.  [Civicist]
  • Here's an open government failure worth noting: the Commission on Presidential Debates has declined to release or even discuss this year's rules with media. That's a troubling lack of transparency and accountability to the public. [NBC News]
  • While your correspondent plans on watching C-SPAN on the big screen tonight, the unprecedented variety of options includes some notable interactives. One to watch, so to speak, is debates.twitter.com, which will be carrying Bloomberg's stream. It is the only network or news organization that we are aware of that will be putting fact-checking over the video – and the fact Twitter is carrying it will amplify the checks into a relatively small but influential audience. [Politico]
  • The Trump campaign transition team leads are being reported by media, not disclosed to the public. The presidential transitions are falling short of the transparency the public deserves. [Washington Post]
  • Remember, preventing the next Watergate means that presidential campaigns need to embed start openness now, not after Election Day. [POGO]
  • If you need a laugh, last night's "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver took a look at the scandals of this campaign season last night. Video is embedded tomorrow.

NATIONAL

  • Delayed progress: the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Defense Department, and the Department of Labor have now all published 2016 Open Government Plans. Treasury, Interior, HUD, DHS and Veterans Affairs have still not complied with President Obama's executive order.  [Sunlight]
  • The Berkman-Klein Center published a new paper on open data and privacy. [Harvard]
  • Congress passed a law in 2010 that provided bonuses to government workers who accurately classifiy and declassify records. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that workers are claiming them. [EFF]
  • Here are 27 things that reporter Sarah Westwood learned from reading through the additional 189 pages of documents that the FBI published from its investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. [Washington Examiner]
  • If you're looking for great journalists to follow on transparency, we recommend Josh Gerstein, Glenn Greenwald and Jason Leopold.

STATE AND LOCAL

  • Humanizing data will improve our communities, argues Sunlight's Noel Isama:
    "What we found was that while data and evidence-based decision making is prominent in how cities operate, there is a realization by those in city government and those that work with them of the need to “humanize” data through community engagement and the cross-referencing of data from different parts of government and the public. All of which cannot happen without open access to and easy distribution of data held by governments, along with a concerted effort in reaching out to communities. This humanizing of data allows for solutions to be crafted that are impactful, sustainable and inclusive." [Sunlight]
  • An investment group acquired GovDelivery, which operates government and civic technology projects of interest to many in Sunlight's communities. [Huffington Post]

INTERNATIONAL

  • The Open Government Partnership celebrated its 5th anniversary and announced the suspension of Turkey. [FreedomInfo]
  • Government corruption is a key factor in enabling the trafficking of elephant ivory in Asia. [Guardian]
  • Australia's Tax Office said that a Freedom of Information website, Right to Know, is "cluttering up the Internet" by publishing procedural message related to FOI requests. Here's the thing: while redacting personal details from records is in the public interest, disclosing the names of government officials doing government business by handling requests is another matter. Around the world, reporters find that publishing their "procedural correspondence" with FOIA staff is a lever for transparency, accountability and responsiveness. [Canberra Times]

EVENTS

Register_today_for_TransparencyCamp_2016_

Tired of your boss/friend/intern/uncle forwarding you this email every morning? You can sign up here and have it delivered direct to your inbox! You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout.

We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 a.m. on the Monday prior to the event.

Sep 26, 2016

(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

For four decades, it has been customary for presidential candidates to release his/her tax returns to the American people. While not required by law, it was a measure of transparency that we as a country seemed to agree was important following the Watergate scandal. (We wrote earlier this year why this is important.)

But while several generations of candidates have offered the public a chance to examine those records, Donald Trump has refused.

We went through Trump’s tweets and found he was very interested in President Obama’s tax returns and foreign money he received, yet Trump still has not allowed the American public to see and examine his own tax returns. It’s especially troubling and necessary given stories swirling about his own financial ties with foreign governments.

In a tweet earlier this year, Trump also attacked Mitt Romney for not releasing his own taxes until Sept. 21.

We’re now past that date in the 2016 cycle.

Reporters have asked Trump about the tax returns but Trump has only replied he will not release them because he is under audit. The IRS commissioner has already said there is nothing legally holding Trump from releasing those records. Attorneys may advise citizens to avoid speaking publicly about their tax issues, but Trump isn’t a private citizen. He’s running to be president of the United States and thus has an even greater responsibility to be transparent about the reason the IRS is auditing his records.

It’s less than transparent for someone who wants to lead a free nation.

So here are some suggested follow up questions for reporters/debate moderators after the important “Why won’t you release your tax returns?” question.

  • Will you release the audit letter?
  • What are you being audited for?
  • What is your tax rate?
  • How much did you pay in taxes?
  • Did you pay any taxes to foreign governments? (Which ones? How much?)
  • Do foreign governments or state sponsors businesses/banks have interests in your companies?
  • How many deductions did you take for giving money to charity?
  • What sort of tax abatements have you received through your real estate holdings?
  • How much money do you owe and to whom?
  • Do you hold any money offshore?

We’ve agreed as a nation that releasing tax returns are a basic, transparent act that presidential candidates should perform before stepping into this serious role. Trump may be used to getting exemptions on his tax bill, but he should not get an exemption from releasing them to the public.

Sep 26, 2016

U.N. forum calling on countries to adopt GODAN
U.N. forum calling on countries to adopt GODAN. (Image Credit: Sunlight Foundaiton/Alex Howard)

The 2016 Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Summit this September featured the highest level endorsement of open data by a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to date, coupled with resounding endorsement of the importance of providing increased access to knowledge that would mitigate world hunger, increase resilience against climate change and stem negative influence of environmental pollution. It was both inspiring and encouraging to see representatives of countries from around the globe convening at the United Nations to call on world leaders to commit to releasing more open data about agriculture and nutrition.

To make progress on these ambitious goals and commitments, however, politicians, officials and advocates need to catalyze a deeper global examination of the real challenges to opening agricultural data. Until the secretaries, ministers, academics, advocates and non-governmental organizations that are casting an optimistic light upon the role of open data recognize the persistent issues around copyright, proprietary data, and powerful industrial interests, the rhetoric is not going to yield real change. Sustainability, resilience and responsibility need to be the watchwords of the global open data movement in every context, in agriculture and nutrition as much as in telecommunications and consumer technology.

Opening public interest data which is created by private actors is complicated. Opening data can provide enormous societal, economic and transparency benefits around the world, and there needs to be a clear and well-defined recognition by governments that economic and privacy risks exist for farmers who create or share data about their work, assets and crops. We should be alert to potential harms from agencies that move too quickly to release data without appropriate redaction of personally identifiable information.

We must also be aware of how access to industry sector, such as agricultural data, works with broader principles of public access to information. Nations that do not have freedom of information laws need to commit to the simple but fundamental principle that the public has a right to access information created and stewarded on their behalf. Connecting open data to this right is critical.

Where freedom of information laws exist, they also provide useful guidelines for deciding when it is in the public interest to redact information. Nations that do not have privacy laws must think through the potential harms of releasing data about the public which are considered in existing exemptions to freedom of information laws, including mosaic effects from combining different existing sources of public data and the presumption of harm standard that is familiar to journalists and advocates.

The good news is that the GODAN Secretariat, the organizing and convening body behind the global effort, is not only aware of the real challenges to open agricultural data but has commissioned and published research that directly explores and recommends pathways for improvement. One critical way to improve the current approach is through reaching out to the people that the democratized information needs to benefit. From the farmers with privacy concerns, to the future users of data, to apps and services – any responsible use of data should acknowledge their use of equities and build with them, not for them, from the very beginning.

Research published during the GODAN Summit by the Engine Room’s Zara Rachman and Sunlight alumna Lindsay Ferris on responsible data helps bring this perspective to light:

Those with the fewest resources, on the margins of the sector, such as indigenous populations and smallholder farmers, are most at risk of having their needs ignored here. Without awareness of their rights, or of how their data is being used and the subsequent effects, inequalities are at risk of growing due to data-driven insights, rather than being reduced. As a result, there is a clear need to build capacity among smallholder farmers and less well-resourced actors in the sector on how to deal with the growing amounts of data that are becoming available. Simply making data available is not enough to address these differences, and more needs to be done, potentially through providing low-cost advisory services on data use, or more accessible capacity-building options which clearly outline the reasons behind such offerings.

Similarly, research published by Jeremy de Beer, a law professor at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Law, Technology and Society, recognizes the challenges that surround ownership of open data in poor countries and states. Where public data can be copyrighted and powerful agribusiness interests with deep pockets can capture its value, agriculture data belongs to private actors rather than to a national or global commons.

Open agricultural and nutritional data is becoming an increasingly vital resource in the advancement and innovation of farmer organizations, food production, value chain development, and provision of services. Modern farmers use a considerable amount of data in making their day-to-day decisions, relying on key datasets such as weather data, market price data, and agricultural inputs data. [However, the] ...predominant model of driving open data via voluntarily licence agreements, as opposed to more fundamental changes in the instruments governing data rights and responsibilities, presents substantial risks for all stakeholders. The most vulnerable actors lack the ownership rights to redress power imbalances in respect of open data. Intermediaries who have the most enforceable ownership rights have little guidance regarding the line between legal and ethical responsibilities to adopt fair data and benefit sharing practices. And the open data community as a whole faces uncertainty and instability in the governance of data ownership issues.

De Beer also emphasized the significance of digital inequality in the development and use of open agricultural data. Without better support, public engagement and investment to ensure that disclosures reach rural communities, open data has the potential to accelerate inequalities, "empowering the empowered," not reducing the asynchronies of information that persist across markets and polities.

[While] everyone should have the potential to make use of open data, not everyone does. Many people lack the legal ownership rights—as well as digital infrastructure, financial resources, or skills and education—to share in the benefits of open data. Numerous studies note the advantages open data can promote for governments and its citizens, including for example improving economic growth through innovation and enhancing social value. However, without the basic building blocks such countries remain unable to capture the bene ts open data can provide. Ultimately, this also speaks to the potential risks of greater exploitation by powerful actors, as those most vulnerable and without information may be willing to share more, while those least vulnerable may actually be the most cautious.

Failures to collect and publish agriculture data can do real harm. When laws and regulations are written to prevent the measurement or disclosure of the use of antibiotics in livestock, feedlot practices, the use of fertilizers or insecticides, the quality of water or a quantity of water or to create friction around the disclosure of science by government scientists, the public interest is not served.

We strongly encourage world leaders to embrace the mission and statement of purpose advanced by GODAN in the months and years ahead. We also encourage the public to demand more transparency and accountability from governments in acknowledging where power and politics are preventing data from being collected, disclosed or used.

At its best, open government data provides a backbone for humanity to understand how our world is changing and to adapt, from climate change to evolution to human behavior. In this context, an expanding ecosystem for open data about agriculture and food represents civic infrastructure, providing a foundation not only for shared facts but for the public to build and co-create insight, services and shared outcomes.

The transparency that releasing agricultural and nutrition data provides is not enough to bring about technical or policy changes on its own. That requires political agency and elected representatives of the people challenging the industry giants of the Silicon Age today, just as they did a century ago in the Gilded Age.

We look forward to working with our partners and allies around the world to advocate for reforms that help us make progress on our share of challenges together.

Sep 26, 2016

(Image credit: 21st Century Neighborhoods)

Last week I attended the 21st Century Neighborhoods Symposium in Baltimore, Md., which gathered academics, elected officials, representatives from the non-profit and private sectors and journalists, on how to build great neighborhoods. As part of our involvement with What Works Cities, Sunlight was interested in the role transparency and citizen engagement could play in creating these places.

What we found was that while data and evidence-based decision making is prominent in how cities operate, there is a realization by those in city government and those that work with them of the need to “humanize” data through community engagement and the cross-referencing of data from different parts of government and the public. All of which cannot happen without open access to and easy distribution of data held by governments, along with a concerted effort in reaching out to communities. This humanizing of data allows for solutions to be crafted that are impactful, sustainable and inclusive.

The Symposium provided real-life examples of this. Kasim Reed, the Mayor of Atlanta, told us how his administration approached the redevelopment of the area surrounding Turner Field, which is being vacated by Atlanta Braves. These surrounding neighborhoods are economically depressed. But with the looming exit of the Braves and transit projects such as the Atlanta BeltLine, developers are eagerly seeking build. In an attempt to ensure these communities are beneficiaries of future gains, the city of Atlanta partnered with local community groups and non-profits to survey community needs. This led to efforts to educate the people who lived near Turner Field not sell those homes immediately but encourage them to hold on and participate in the subsequent development. In Atlanta, crowdsourcing became integral to shaping development plans in these communities

Mayor Tony Yarber of Jackson, Miss., provided another example of how data and community engagement shaped his city’s approach to creating good neighborhoods. Using public works data and crime data, the city focused its efforts on targeting code enforcement for blight in areas near schools and in areas of high crime. Here, the data demonstrated showed dilapidated housing, criminal activity and that people are most influenced in where they choose to live by the presence of a school and their safety. So in deciding where to focus their limited resources and get maximum impact, the city made a decision that contributed to less crime, while laying the seeds for future development.

The area where the impact of data, transparency and community engagement was most striking for me was public safety. Police Chief Kenton Buckner, of Little Rock, Ark., noted that being open with police data was essential to foster accountability and trust with the community. “People don’t expect perfect, but they expect the truth”. He specifically mentioned how use of force data should be open, to show that the police take matters seriously.

In a breakout session, experts from various fields noted that crime data did not exist in a vacuum and that it had to be considered with other factors. For example, when addressing gun crimes participants suggested that the same data that identified incident hotspots when combined with other datasets, could also be used to target initiatives that addressed the conditions that lead to criminal activity. So mediation efforts by community groups or job creation efforts could be strategically deployed for immediate and long term gain.

Data and the holistic approach to problem-solving for cities

Instead of simply diagnosing a problem, data combined with input from citizens was used to craft more focused and targeted solutions. Jon Links, Vice Provost and Chief Risk and Compliance Officer at Johns Hopkins University, emphasized in his “call for action”, the need for cities to develop a holistic approach to problem-solving, that addresses factors that lead to crisis, not just the problem itself.

For him, the best method was using data to ask different questions that would lead to more direct solutions. Such data demonstrated that the police who negotiated with protesting groups saw less incidents of violence. With that in mind, community organizations encouraged Baltimore police to negotiate with the local groups who were organizing protests in response to police brutality during the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray. After employing this approach, the police saw a reduction in violent incidents in subsequent protests.

The Symposium demonstrated that if cities are going to develop great neighborhoods using data and evidence, they need to include citizens to develop impactful, sustainable and inclusive solutions. We can’t go back to 20th century approaches that deliver 20th century solutions, to paraphrase Jay Willams, former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio and current U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development. Transparency through open data and enhanced engagement with communities provide the necessary tools for 21st-century solutions that cities and their citizens are looking for.

Sep 26, 2016

Police officer stops two cars
(Photo Credit: Coolcaesar, from English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The dependence of thousands of American cities and town on judicial fines and forfeiture to fund public services is unhealthy for democracy. Public awareness of the depth of the problem has been growing since the Department of Justice’s 2014 investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., police, following the shooting of Michael Brown.

According to a Sunlight examination of 2013 Census data, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois and Mississippi topped the list of states where city governments relied heavily on fines and forfeits for funding. We concluded this by examining the ratio of local fines and forfeits to local tax in order to see where local governments rely particularly heavily on fines and forfeits to pay for basic services. Using this metric, the government of Henderson, Louisiana relied most on  these types of fines and forfeits. Henderson collected $3.73 in fines and forfeits for every $1 it collected in taxes. Out of the five municipal governments which reported collecting more money from fines than from taxes in 2013, three (Henderson, Pollack, and Olla) were from Louisiana. All five were towns with populations under 1,500. This suggests that most of those fines were probably paid by people who did not live in those towns, but who nonetheless had to drive through them.

The Louisiana towns were unusual relative to the rest of the local governments sampled by the Census. The median ratio of fines and forfeit revenue to tax revenue for city and county governments was 0.02 – that is, the median city or county collected two cents in fines and forfeits for every dollar it collected in taxes. Averaging local governments by state revealed that high relative collection of fines and forfeits is more common in some states than others. The following table displays the ten states with local governments demonstrating the highest fines-to-tax ratio.  

               

State
Average Fines/Index
Louisiana
.19
Arkansas
.10
Georgia
.09
Illinois
.08
Mississippi
.08
Missouri
.07
Delaware
.07
Kansas
.05
Arizona
.05
Table describing the average of fines divided by total tax for 10 states where this ratio is the highest. (Table credit: Sunlight Foundation)

How to use tax and Census data to reveal the story

How did we figure this out? Knowing how much a given city depends on criminal and civil fines is difficult because it’s hard to get detailed information. In our collaboration with MuckRock last November, we received no information from our public records requests for detailed data on the kind and amount of fines levied by a sample of cities. Frankly, it’s challenging to even get aggregate information on fines issued by local law enforcement and local courts.

Meanwhile, even when individual departments do provide information, it can be hard to know whether it represents high, low, or average collection of fines and forfeits. There are so many local governments, and so few places where their data is aggregated, that it’s hard to find a significant collection of useful data in order to make comparative observations about any one place.

Nonetheless, local government data is aggregated under certain programs. In recent posts, we examined the local government data that has been aggregated through the Uniform Criminal Reporting (UCR) program. To learn more about local fines, though, we need different data sources.

While far from complete, there are a couple of meaningful, publicly-accessible collection points for local government finance data. We can begin by looking at two major sources of financial data for local governments: the annual US Census survey of state and local government finance and the Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) database of the Municipal Securities Rule Board (MSRB).

The most recent US Census data on local government finance is for 2013. The survey collects information on “revenue, expenditure, debt, and assets (cash and security holdings)” for all states and a representative sample of local governments. To see information at the level of individual local governments, you must download, unzip and format the public-use individual unit file. Each line of data contains an ID number for each place, a code for each category of revenue and expenditure, and an amount of money collected or expended.

Code U30 identifies the total amount of “revenue from penalties imposed for violations of law; civil penalties (e.g., for violating court orders); court fees if levied upon conviction of a crime or violation; court-ordered restitutions to crime victims where government actually collects the monies; and forfeits of deposits held for performance guarantees or against loss or damage (such as forfeited bail and collateral).” The category does not include penalties for late tax payment, library fines, or sale of confiscated property.

Since individual lines may be inaccurate, it is best to use the database for looking at trends and averages.

First, we can use information about local population together with the fines and forfeits total in order to see where fines and forfeits are likely to play a particularly significant financial role. We can note, for example, that there is significant state-level variation in the average amount of fines and forfeits that local governments collect, per capita. The states where local governments assess, on average, the most fines and forfeits per capita do so at a rate that’s four times higher than the states doing it the least. Cities typically collect more fines and forfeits per capita than counties do -- although the opposite is true in a handful of states, most notably Kansas and Nevada.

Average per capita local fines and forfeits, 2013
(Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation)

It would be useful to be able to be able to compare local governments on the proportion of their total revenue that comes from fines and forfeits, but the Census data was insufficiently exhaustive to provide this measure consistently. Instead, we can look at how a local government’s collection of fines and forfeits compares to its collection of taxes. The Census provides data on all of the varieties of tax that local governments collect, from the very common property and sales tax to more obscure ones, like taxes on airports. Our extract of Census data containing the 2013 information on tax and fine revenue from all sampled city or county governments that reported revenue from both taxes and fines is available for download here.

With the substantial amount of information it collects together, the U.S. Census provides an unparalleled data source for understanding the broader picture for local government finances. To get into the specifics of any one location, however, we need primary sources. Happily, the “fines and forfeits” category is not just a Census category. It is also a common category for local government budgets, typically available on all local government websites.

Disclosure of revenue collection through fines and forfeits can also be found in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) that local governments provide as an aspect of their financial disclosures for the issuance of municipal bonds, which means that this information can also be found on the MSRB’s EMMA database. Find individual local governments by choosing a state, then a bond-issuing local government, and then select “Financial Disclosures” to find that government’s CAFR history. While we can only look at CAFRs individually, the EMMA repository is a useful tool for supporting comparisons of governments regionally, or over time.

Neither the Census nor the MSRB offers an unproblematic answer to the question of where to get information about these issues. The survey of state and local finances is sometimes inaccurate, a possibility the Census acknowledges in a disclaimer.

For example, the 2013 US Census survey shows Boulder, Colo., reporting zero revenue from fines and forfeits, when the city’s budget documentation shows otherwise. The MSRB provides PDFs of individual government budget documents, but no machine readable data. Nonetheless, both data sources provide critical and comparable information about governmental dependence on fines and forfeits.

Cash cow police departments are abnormal

What existing data tells us is that it is not normal for governments to raise significant revenue through their policing activities. Across Florida, for example, fines and forfeitures represented an average of 1% of cities’ revenue between 1995 and 2009. In economically healthy cities, although the absolute dollar total of city-issued fines and forfeitures can be large, it still represents a small proportion of city revenue. Washington, D.C. currently raises about 1.7% of its total revenue through fines and forfeitures (and it appears that over 70% of the fines and forfeitures total comes from speed cameras, which produced $85 million in city revenue during FY 2015.)  San Francisco and New York City both raise about 1.1% of their total revenues through fines and forfeitures.

There is also evidence, however, that this changes when cities come under financial pressure, and that local governments collect more fines when other forms of city revenue decline. One study, examining North Carolina’s response to the early-2000s recession, showed that increased ticketing by local police made up 38% of the annual decline in city revenue.

This was a more frequent situation for local governments after the 2007 recession produced a serious decline in municipal property tax revenue. Cities have expanded their use of some kinds of revenue-generating law enforcement practices, like red-light cameras and speed cameras [cite].

Individual cases show how economic pressure leads to an interest in finding ways that police can generate additional municipal revenue. Between 2007 and 2013, failing local revenue forced the police department of West Covina, Calif., to cut 37% of its staff. The city’s 2014 budget noted that as a result, “understaffing is both a public safety and customer service issue, as residents have to wait longer for responses to non-emergency calls, and supervisory span of control has been reduced.”  The California-based Drug Policy Alliance studied revenues for West Covina, among other California towns, and found a strong relationship between local budget pressure and increased police collection of civil forfeiture money:

In West Covina forfeiture income surged in the wake of budget cuts to the police department. After growing for several consecutive years, general fund appropriations for West Covina’s police budget were cut by over $1 million in FY 2011. The following year, the department’s forfeiture take more than quadrupled. In fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013, the police budget was cut a combined $1,677,134. In that same period, the department received $5,529,409 from DOJ equitable sharing, more than making up for the budget cuts. The amount of DOJ forfeiture revenue police collected in those 3 years as budget appropriations were shrinking was more than 7 times greater than what the department collected from forfeitures in the 8 preceding years, a time when police budgets were growing.

In 2010, a commander in the West Covina police department wrote in Police Chief magazine about ideas from “a group of experts” for new ways to generate revenue, including through increasing all fines by 50 percent. He described two new “ordinances and programs” the department had implemented to generate new revenue: a new fine for party noise running up to $500 and a $1,000 fine on parents for juvenile graffiti.

Ferguson’s reliance on fines for revenue, during a period of regional financial stress, resulted in the city collecting 80% more fines between 2011 and 2013, by which point it was raising 20% of its budget through fines and forfeitures. Before the killing of Michael Brown, they anticipated that they would collect an extra million dollars in 2014 through police activity, raising a total of 25% of the city budget through fines.

Cities and their police departments may see increasing their dependence fines as a viable strategy for funding the government. However, the cost of running a revenue generation scheme through the criminal justice system is that things can very quickly get bad for the people who are required to pay for it. Municipalities can compound the financial hazard for the people who are fined by contracting with private probation collectors, who are allowed to add additional, legally-enforceable fees and interest to the amount that the court originally required.

To get details about how revenue-raising policing is working specifically, we need reporters to continue to dig into details and governments to respond to public records requests. Transparency and accountability must go together. In the meantime, the rest of us do have some public data sources which we can use to begin to answer the question.