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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

Jul 02, 2015

Woman in black suit and red blouse stands in front of American flag.
Hillary Clinton's official photo as secretary of state in 2009.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton attended a $2,700-per-person fundraiser at the home of Lynn Rothschild on Tuesday, the same day that archived emails released by the State Department showed that Rothschild may have influenced a profile of the former secretary of state.

In an email from August 2009, one of the 3,000 released on Tuesday, Rothschild told Clinton that she spent the previous day on Nantucket with Les Gelb of Parade Magazine, who had relayed his pitch for an upcoming profile of the then-secretary of state.

“He said he would give you a veto over content and looked me in the eye and said, ‘she will like it,’” Rothschild wrote.

An editor’s note was appended to the online version of the article saying that AMG/Parade, the magazine’s current owners, “does not promise favorable coverage or allow any subject control of the editorial process.” Gelb denied wrongdoing to a Politico reporter.

Rothschild was a major financial supporter of Clinton during her 2008 campaign, but resigned her position with the Democratic National Committee and backed Republican nominee John McCain after Clinton's primary loss to President Barack Obama.

The fundraiser was just one stop on a busy fundraising tour for Clinton, as her campaign approached its first filing deadline. Fundraiser invitations obtained by the Sunlight Foundation show that Clinton has attended 10 fundraisers in the last four days, including ones hosted by fashion designer Kenneth Cole and singer Bon Jovi. The events, held in Massachusetts, New York and Washington, D.C., all request $1,000 to $2,700 to attend, the maximum that can be contributed to a candidate’s primary campaign according to federal law.

Thursday evening, Clinton is attending a fundraiser at the Massachusetts home of Elaine Schuster, a philanthropist and Democratic donor, and her husband Gerald Schuster, a real estate developer who was a major donor to President Bill Clinton and was audited by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for misappropriation of funds in 1999.

According to early reporting, Hillary for America raised $45 million in the quarter, an amount unlikely to be matched by any of her opponent’s authorized political action committees.

Jul 01, 2015

The Cabinet of Ministers. Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo credit: Daniel Haußmann/Wikimedia Commons)

Since the revolution that led to the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014, and as a war continues to rage on in the east, the pulse of Ukrainian citizens has oscillated between hope, concern and chaos. Some strides toward the promised anti-corruption reforms have been made — including the passage of a transparency bill earlier this year. However, a year later, public opinion is mixed as critics purport that the the new government has not delivered on these promises. Fortunately, the recent movement of two bills represent a great step forward for anti-corruption advocates — and has helped rejuvenate hope in this movement.

Two pieces of legislation will forward openness in parliament to better connect citizens to their members, as well as help oversight actors within and outside the government hold their members of parliament (MPs) to account. Bill 1591 would enable greater transparency of parliamentary committees by opening committee meetings to journalists and online broadcasts, as well as putting all records and transcripts from these meetings online. It would also enhance the amount of information on chamber deputies by requiring them to publish names of their staff members on the website of Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's legislative body. Bill 1895 would bring greater accountability to MPs by imposing sanctions for “impersonal voting” when an MP votes on behalf of another member.

Last week, our friends from Chesno movement (“Honestly”) celebrated bills 1895 and 1591 as they made their first pass through the Verkhovna Rada. The coalition of civil society organizations, based out of Centre UA, has spent the last several months implementing a coordinated campaign to raise public awareness around the bills and lobby on behalf of their movement forward. They even created a website that publicly calls out MPs for engaging in “impersonal” voting — and it’s gotten a lot of attention. A banner pulling data from their website has been embedded in top news portals, such as the main newspaper, Pravda.

Certainly there is still much left to do as civil society organizations and lawmakers set out to turn this bill into law, and steps must be taken to ensure they don’t get watered down or distorted throughout the process. However, as a new government in a country hungry for reform faces a formative moment, these bills do demonstrate a genuine interest on the part of lawmakers in enhancing transparency and accountability. Additionally, it shows an example of the kind of tangible changes that advocacy can empower. And being able to document how the coordinated efforts of journalists, civil society organizations and citizens have impact can help turn disillusionment into fuel for change.

Jun 30, 2015

Man in dark suit and yellow tie stands behind a podium
Former Sen. Russ Feingold speaking at Arizona State University in 2012

Former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who announced in May his plans to run for the Senate seat he lost in 2010, raised more than $900,000 online this quarter — making it likely that his committee will raise $1 million when the quarter ends on June 30. A Wisconsin Democratic Party official confirmed that Feingold's campaign will break $1 million when its full filings are released by the July 15 deadline.

Federal Election Commission filings from ActBlue, the online fundraising tool for Democratic candidates and organizations, show that Feingold raised $936,519.77 online from April 1 to June 17. Though ActBlue normally files monthly filings, mandatory disclosures due to special elections in New York and Illinois give a sneak peak into Democratic fundraising for the upcoming quarter.

A Sunlight Foundation analysis of the more than 1 million contributions received by ActBlue during the time period showed that Feingold's authorized political committee, Russ for Wisconsin, raised the most of any congressional committee or candidate using the platform. The only candidate with higher earnings through the platform was Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who received a hefty $8.4 million.

Graph showing Feingold's contributions from ActBlue
Donations to Russ for Wisconsin obtained from ActBlue FEC filings.

Ninety-eight percent of the more than 20,000 contributions earmarked for Feingold's campaign were small donations of $200 or less. The average contribution made to Feingold was $43.48, with small donations accounting for 54 percent of the total amount raised. Forty percent of contributions were from Wisconsin, Feingold's home state. New York residents contributed the next highest amount, accounting for 14 percent of the total amount raised.

Feingold raised $307,000 on May 14 alone, the day he announced the start of his campaign in a 90-second ad, taking aim at big money in politics. Feingold, a former three-term senator before he lost to current Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, lends his name to the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act, which has since been weakened by the Supreme Court in the recent Citizens United and McCutcheon cases.

Earlier this month, Feingold put forth the Badger Pledge, an agreement that both he and Johnson not accept support from independent organizations like super PACs and 501(c) organizations. In the event of an independent expenditure ad buy, the candidate benefitted would be obligated to pay half of the cost to a charity of his opponent's choosing. Johnson has not commented on the pledge, a move that Feingold's campaign has highlighted in press releases.

But around the same time, Feingold came under fire after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel piece found that a political action committee he had founded to aid federal candidates spent less than 5 percent of its income on direct contributions. The group, Progressives United PAC, founded to "directly and indirectly" fund "candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals," spent only $350,000 of the $7 million raised on candidates.

Bernie Sanders, who has been running on a platform opposed to Citizens United and big money in politics, had 79 percent of his ActBlue contributions come from small donors. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is also in the Democratic primary race, earned $331,000 through ActBlue donations in the time period analyzed. Only 2 percent of that came from small donors, with the average O'Malley donor contributing $983.

Jun 30, 2015

Last summer, Sunlight created a feature that allowed you to email your lawmakers just as easily as you would a friend or colleague. One year later, we are improving the user experience by writing new text and illustrating custom icons to enhance the meaning of it.

The impetus to these changes started with user support tickets — a lot of them. Users were confused and quickly frustrated with certain parts of the emailing process, including an introductory email Sunlight had to send to users in order for them to utilize the tool. For more background on this, click here.

The introductory email users receive from Sunlight. (Click to enlarge)

So, the design and development team got out pencils and paper to sketch out what the process should look like to clarify these confusions. We wanted to guide our users on how they should utilize this feature to email their legislator in the easiest way.

The introduction email

We have created three custom illustrations to help explain three things: what our service is, why you should use it and what’s next in ensuring your message gets delivered. Anticipating these three questions from users based on frustrated support tickets and providing thoughtful answers helped us to begin to solve the problems our users were having.

Illustrations

To ensure the illustrations felt connected and cohesive, we made sure line quality, line weight, colors and overall styles mimicked each other. We did this by actually drawing it out by hand; you can check out the process of evolution below.

"I already sent my message, why are you contacting me?"

We wanted to acknowledge that receiving this introduction email could be potentially confusing or frustrating, as the user has already sent their message — why would Sunlight be contacting them? Deciding to place a mail slot in the Capitol creates an immediate visual to the user that this is, in fact, the most direct and easy way to contact your legislator.

"Why should I use this service to send my message?"

To demonstrate our value, we used an American flag to describe the bigger picture: Contacting Congress is your right as an American, and we are here to provide that service to you.

"What's the next step to sending my message?"

We need the user to submit the requisite information for their message to actually send to their legislator. They have just one more step before their email is sent — represented by a form and a prominent check mark — and we’re hoping they’ll click on the link and take it.

For example, an American citizen would like to send an email to their legislator, and happily learns that Sunlight has created email addresses for every member of Congress (since Congress has no official email addresses). There is one catch! Members of Congress demand a certain amount of information from people who contact them directly via the web. In order for Sunlight to successfully deliver this email, we too must have that information. To obtain it, Sunlight sends a follow up introduction email to the user after their first time contacting their law makers. This email is where we sought to use illustrations to support the explainer text and improve the overall experience of using the tool. (Return to top.)

Jun 29, 2015

Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace in Argentina. (Photo credit: Dragan/Wikimedia Commons)

We are excited to announce that Sunlight is taking our international work to the next level, launching an 18-month effort to help translate global reform into national action through sustained and focused in-country work. With generous support from the Hewlett Foundation, we are now starting work with our friends and allies in Argentina toward a shared vision of an open and inclusive society — and more accountable governance.

We have just returned from our first trip to Buenos Aires and could not be more excited about this effort. We met with data journalists, NGO leaders, federal officials and local government open data leaders. There is a vibrant open data community throughout the country, and we look forward to helping advance their work on a variety of fronts over the coming months.

The approaching elections later this fall provide an opportunity and renewed enthusiasm for political reform in Argentina. And reform is indeed much needed for the second largest Latin American country facing poverty, high inflation, as well as inequalities in housing, health and education. Issues of transparency and access to information are at the heart of many of the country’s burning issues, whether in the form of a dysfunctional national statistics program or undue influence and entrenched corruption.

After years of experimentation and creative chaos, the global community of NGOs working on transparency reform is becoming more specialized, strategic and more coordinated. National- and local-level advocacy efforts are increasingly informed by the resources the international community is creating, such as norms and standards, toolkits and guidelines, or open source code. At the same time, government reform work is still often thematically and geographically isolated. Many local and national groups don’t have real access to these global resources, nor the capacities to deploy them.

Sunlight’s international work is grounded in combining technology, journalism and policy advocacy in a mutually reinforcing way. This approach has led us to place a high value on civil society organizations, whose voices have enormous potential in helping to shape agendas, priorities and national dialog. In the coming years, we will work closely with Argentine civil society groups to help them become more strategic actors within their own context, responding to a variety of kinds of opportunities and challenges, and helping to drive cultural change.

During our recent visit to Argentina, we were inspired by the work of NGOs throughout the country working on a variety of issues, including Fundacion Directorio Legislativo, Poder Ciudadano, Wingu, CIPECC, Cartogras, La Nacion or Chequada. These are only a few of the many transparency activists monitoring their decision-makers, pushing for policy reform, creating more demand from citizens or scraping data, when need be. The strength of Argentina’s NGO community was a major factor in our decision to focus there, and we’re even more encouraged as we learn more about their work.

Even though Argentine politics can be nearly inscrutable to an outsider, the one theme most clear in our conversations was that the country is poised to make significant change as the approaching presidential election creates a new dialog about reform, and as innovation from other levels of government — both regional and subnational — are brought to the national level.

Over the next year or so, Sunlight’s international team will devote much of our attention to Argentina, through activities like consultations, trainings, data journalism projects and new initiatives with local civil society organizations. Our work will be informed and strengthened by our two global-facing programs — OpeningParliament and the Money, Politics and Transparency project — and build on the expertise of the international networks that we're part of.

We could not be more excited to embark on this new initiative working at the intersection of international standards and national-level reform efforts. We’re looking forward to sharing more about our work as it progresses, so stay tuned!

Jun 29, 2015

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about opengov at the state, local and international levels, but when it comes to the federal government people just shake their heads and mutter. That is unfortunate, because a lot is happening at the federal level.

Here are five areas where the federal government is making major strides.

5. Innovative uses of technology

When you think of how the government uses technology, innovation often is not the word that comes to mind. More often it’s thought of as clunky, slow, out-of-date, insecure and expensive. But the executive branch has taken a step towards addressing these issues by creating 18F.

18F bills itself as “building the 21st century digital government.” It is an inside-government consultancy that builds technology for government on a cost-recovery basis. Housed at the General Services Administration, 18F addresses the twin problems of outside contractors who build cruddy tools that cost a ton of money as well as underfunded government developers who must use inadequate tools in unfriendly environments. Private sector developers are brought into government in the equivalent of a technology startup to help agencies build new tools and change the way they engage with technology. Most importantly, they work to change the culture around government information technology.

18F connects to opengov because many of its projects are opengov-related and the tools it builds are developed in the open. Projects include cleaning up Federal Election Commission data, a consolidated FOIA request hub, making federal spending transparent and rethinking the portal MyUSA. 18F is changing the way government uses technology, which often results in better, faster disclosure of government information.

4. Open courts

Unfortunately, federal courts are awful about opengov. But I did not want to let the opportunity to praise some great work being done on the federal civil society side, notably Courtlistener, Oyez, ScotusBlog and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute. Respectively, they provide alerts for and deep content regarding federal court decisions; publish audio and transcripts of Supreme Court decisions from 1955 forward; provide real-time reporting and context for current Supreme Court activities; and provide access to many Supreme Court opinions.

3. Improved efforts to provide access to executive branch information

Over the last six years, both Congress and the executive branch have made serious efforts in proactively and responsively releasing information to the public, at least in some (non-national security) arenas.

The most notable effort has been in legislation to fix the Freedom of Information Act. Significant FOIA legislation passed the House and Senate last Congress, but in slightly different forms so it has yet to be signed into law. The Obama administration, most notably the Department of Justice and financial regulatory agencies, fought against much-needed efforts to improve FOIA because it dared codify a presumption of openness and would require the public's interest be weighed when evaluating whether to release information the executive branch deemed privileged. The legislation slowly is moving towards passage this Congress.

Other notable efforts ongoing on the FOIA front include the establishment of a FOIA advisory committee, an effort to unify FOIA regulations across all agencies and the construction of a central online FOIA request portal.

On the proactive disclosure side, the Obama administration conducted a survey of all the datasets it held, and — after a FOIA lawsuit — has agreed to release the inventory to the public. It also continues to publish a log of many of the visitors to the White House. And the administration is engaging in a biannual open government planning process, where many agencies publish a plan for releasing information to the public and follow through on some of their commitments; there’s also an international process around domestic transparency commitments. The Data.gov website, which publishes some federal datasets, also is of some value.

Still, there is a long way to go.

Congress has considered (and in a few instances passed) other notable legislation, including the DATA Act discussed below. Also on the docket is a bill — the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act — that would require all agency reports to Congress be published online. The Presidential Library Donations Reform Act, which requires disclosure of donations to presidential libraries, is poised for consideration by the full House and Senate.There are other smart bills being drafted and considered as well.

2. Publishing federal spending information

Last Congress, the DATA Act was signed into law. This bipartisan measure would make much federal spending information available to the public, and would have gone further if not for strong opposition from the Office of Management and Budget. The regulation governing the law currently is jointly being written by OMB and Treasury. By incorporating unique identifiers, following federal spending at a great level of detail and pushing information into a central repository, the DATA Act holds out the promise of transforming our understanding of federal spending. New legislation to extend the DATA Act also has been introduced.

Federal responding requirements like the DATA Act can be transformative. Whatever the merits of the 2009 economic stimulus bill, the transparency requirements around the $787 billion legislation have had surprising results: “spending transparency became institutionalized in some states.” In some cases, the availability of Recovery Act data marked the first time officials were able to monitor performance trends for federal contracts, grants and loans across all state agencies. If properly implemented, the DATA Act can have similar follow-on benefits.

1. Open legislative information

By far the most remarkable transformation has been in public access to legislative information. The work to make congressional information available to the public in a structured data format and in bulk has been transformative, and the House literally has changed the way it operates to make this happen. We are here only because of a bipartisan commitment by House leadership who have labored without great acclaim against high bureaucratic barriers to modernize congressional operations.

There's too much to point out all of the changes, but here are the highlights.

This is no less than a revolution in how Congress makes information available to the public. In turn, it has empowered a huge federal civic technology community that transforms the new data and tools into new ways to communicate with Congress, analyze information and make government more efficient and effective. Literally millions of people each month are directly or indirectly accessing federal legislative information because of this process. The Senate is not as far down the path as the House, and the Library of Congress is notable for its foot-dragging, but we have seen real, tangible, important progress.

Concluding thoughts

What makes all this progress even remarkable is that advocates for opengov at the federal level, especially when it comes to legislative information, have received much less attention recently than advocates at other levels of government. A lot is happening at the federal level, and if we keep working at it the possibilities are endless.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com

Jun 26, 2015

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Almonroth/Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is up with another round of political ads set to begin today in Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa and North Carolina, according to FCC documents.

The lobbying giant wouldn't provide details about the newest round of advertisements, which are set to go up today in most markets.

The ads are disclosed in FCC documents tracked by The Sunlight Foundation's Political Ad Sleuth tool. Those documents do not unambiguously spell out what the advertising is about; a CBS affiliate in Des Moines noted the ad was titled "Serious Question," but disclosure forms completed on behalf of the group ignore FCC rules requiring advertisers to say what federal issue is discussed.

The business lobby — including the Chamber of Commerce — has been one of the biggest backers of the Export-Import bank, whose charter is set to expire June 30. The bank has been attacked by conservatives, who view the bank's export assistance programs as government pork. The Obama administration and business groups backing the agency say ending the bank would cost jobs.

The Chamber of Commerce began a previous round of advertising on the Export-Import Bank roughly a month ago. Those ads' targets included Republican House members Buddy Carter, Ga.; Susan Brooks and Luke Messer, Ind.; Bill Shuster, Pa.; Stephen Fincher, Tenn.; Richard Hudson, N.C.; and John Carter, Texas.

Jun 26, 2015

Profile of man in black suit looking away from camera.
Screengrab from American Future Project video showing Gov. Bobby Jindal.

A soft money organization that poured over $224,000 into Iowa TV ads during the month of June favorable to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had its website go offline Wednesday — the same day that Jindal formally announced his candidacy.

The group, called the American Future Project, organized on March 11 according to its IRS filings; it has yet to disclose any donors, but will in its next filing, due in mid-July. According to the filing, it was formed to "advocate for conservative free market solutions." Its now blank website and remaining ads on its YouTube channel suggest that Jindal is a prime source of those solutions.

One ad, still available for view on the organization’s YouTube channel, is almost entirely excerpts of Jindal speeches, including his 2014 commencement address at Liberty University, along with applauding audiences. “The United States of America did not create religious liberty — religious liberty created the United States of America,” he says in the most recent video. Another video on the organization’s YouTube channel features the governor at the Iowa prayer breakfast with Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson.

In a recent flurry of ad buy disclosures accessed via Political Ad Sleuth, the American Future Project lists religious liberty as an issue of interest. A cached copy of the website from June 23 also includes pages advocating against Common Core, Obamacare and the ongoing negotiations with Iran. All three pages consist mostly of quotes from Jindal.

Though the group features Jindal prominently and in a positive light, it is still able to fundraise unlimited amounts because at no point does it explicitly urge viewers to “vote for” or “support” him. Avoiding these magic words, set out by the Supreme Court in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, allows the ad to be classified as issue advocacy and avoid federal campaign contribution limits. Because American Future Project sticks to issue advertising, it's able to avoid registering with the Federal Election Commission. It will disclose its donors in mid-July, but to the IRS rather than the FEC.

Republican operatives like Gail Gitcho, the former Republican Governors Association and Romney for President communications director, and New Hampshire communications strategist Henry Goodwin have been quoted in media as spokespeople for the group. In March, The Des Moines Register reported that Jindal's deputy chief of staff, Taylor Teepell, as well as his legislative affairs director, Matt Parker, both resigned from the governor's office to begin working for American Future Project.

The American Future Project isn’t the only group working for Jindal. Fundraising on behalf of the governor began as many as six months ago when Believe Again, the super PAC run by former Louisiana congressman and current lobbyist Robert Livingston, was created on Jan. 22.

Believe Again’s website praises Jindal as a “once-in-a-lifetime leader,” and the super PAC has been raising unlimited funds to advocate for his presidential election. Jindal once interned for Livingston, and the committee's current treasurer, Bobby Yarborough, was appointed by Jindal to the board of Louisiana State University. Jindal also appointed Believe Again’s founding treasurer, Rolfe McCollister, to the university's board.

Yarborough has donated $5,000 — the maximum contribution allowable under Louisiana law — to each of Jindal’s previous three gubernatorial campaigns, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The data also show that the health industry contributed $2.1 million to Jindal’s state campaigns, the most of any sector. Jindal was the secretary of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals as well as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Additionally, energy interests put up $1.5 million, construction $1.2 million, and lawyers and lobbyists gave $1 million.

In 2013, a Times-Picayune investigation found that a Louisiana business magnate was able to skirt contribution limits and donate $95,000 through partially owned companies and close relatives. The donor, Bryan Bossier, was appointed by Jindal to state commissions and his firms were awarded multimillion-dollar state contracts.