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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 30, 2014

On Sept. 17, we received an email from a "legal administrator" asking Sunlight to remove the Deloitte logo from three pages at Influence Explorer. They didn't challenge our use of the company name, or the data we presented. It was a simple request, but one that we could not abide. We felt that it was fair use, and that the logo helped identify the company for Influence Explorer users. Whatever the intent, the effect would chill the legitimate use of the logo, and that it was wrong for this entity to do so.

So we sought out help to understand our rights and the law. We would like to thank the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and particularly Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry. At our request, she has sent the legal administrator the following letter to defend our claim. We're posting it for context, and to encourage others so approached to exercise their rights. McSherry has written about the letter here.

Sep 30, 2014

Congress App on iPhone showing Open Congress email approval screen and a blank email to Senator Barbara Mikulski

Earlier this year our OpenCongress team announced that they had created email addresses for members of congress, something that had not been previously available to the general public. If you wanted to contact your representatives, you had to go to their site and fill out a web form or call, fax, or mail (yes, post office mail!) them.

With the release of Congress for iOS 1.6 we've included the OpenCongress emails of legislators! Just click on the Email button on a legislator's profile and we'll guide you through the simple process of creating an OpenCongress account. This is a one-time process. Once your email address is registered, you can send emails without hassle or delay.

Other changes in this release include:

  • iOS 8 support
  • follow (or unfollow) all legislators that represent a specific location
  • show legislator nicknames if they are commonly used
  • visual improvements
  • various bug fixes.

Congress for iPhone 1.6 is available in the App Store now!

Download on the Apple App Store

Sep 29, 2014

Photo credit: Burt Lum/Flickr

I just spent a fascinating few days at the Code for America summit where we had the opportunity to learn about many projects occurring at the intersection of technopole and civitas: the conceptual space where a tech-enabled government and its people meet.

Civic tech aims to solve the problems facing the civitas, the people, who are still the source of the legitimacy for all the moral claims that we’re making on volunteers, on philanthropic funders and on governments. But while the moral argument about public benefit continues to inspire many people’s participation, there was an odd lack of specificity about a few important concepts that are really central to the endeavor. As a member of the civic tech community, and after three intensive days of listening and talking, I still don’t feel I have answers to a few important questions:

  • What are the main problems we’re solving?
  • Who is this public we’re benefiting?
  • What exactly is “the civic tech approach” to this public’s problems?

These are critical questions for our community, and we should demand and create more conceptual clarity around them. Here are a few preliminary thoughts to put us in that direction.

What’s a civic problem?

You can’t talk about “problems” without evoking “solutions,” and “solution” is a word with an important double meaning in the context of civic tech. While a “solution” is something that resolves a problem, “solution” is also popular marketing euphemism for computer software. IBM may sell business “solutions”; perhaps our work is to sell civic “solutions.” Happily, I heard an admonition from the Code for America summit stage that we should not push apps ahead of the need for them: that we should avoid being “a solution in search of a problem.” And yet this only tells us what to avoid doing — and not what, affirmatively, to do. How do we identify a civic problem? And, more to the point, how do we know it’s a real and meaningful problem that’s worthy of attention and investment?

We could consciously explore the wisdom of other fields. We could draw on philosophy and take a utilitarian approach to identifying real civic problems: ranking potential problems by severity, determining how many were affected and calculating the total amount of harm caused by one problem.

A less structured approach could also address the same thing by asking: Of the problems we’re looking to address, which of these fulfill civic wants, and which of these fulfill civic needs?

While there is no absolute definition of “need” versus “want,” this utilitarian shorthand reminds us to connect to what is essential. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s description of a “hierarchy of needs” provides another way to think about categories that are fundamental and prior — the physiological needs of food, water, shelter and physical safety — and those that are additive and secondary, like self-esteem and self-actualization.

If a civic tech community is focused on fulfilling “wants” while it ignores “needs,” then we have to worry about whether the work is too trivial and that the community is not focused on addressing serious civic problems. For this reason, Code for America’s expressed interest in focusing more deeply on health, on public safety and justice, and on economic development (to the extent this means helping more people obtain decent employment) is a welcome development.

However, this focus will have to happen in the context of a particular constituency and approach in order for this targeted focus to achieve the promised solutions for problems.

Who is “the public” and how do we relate to them?

This is the question of defining our identified constituency. It’s a complicated concept and you can really define “the public” in an endless variety of ways. It all becomes even more complicated when we’re also trying to identify what kind of problems “the public” has, and then trying to figure out how the public and its problems relate to civic technologists and their problems.

On the summit stage it was observed that the audience of civic technologists is also “the public,” that we represent some of the citizens we’re seeking to serve. This is indeed true, although it’s clearly an incomplete answer. But why is it incomplete? It’s not really because the civic tech community fails to match the demographics of the national community, although that does point at the issue.

Rather, it’s incomplete because it leaves out a consideration of power.

Power can be defined as the ability to make others do what they wouldn’t otherwise do. Because the kind of power we’re talking about here is governmental power — which is amazingly substantial, since government is our official repository for the legitimate use of physical force — there is a really important difference between those who directly control that power and those who don’t. We can use “lack of government power” as a measure of the basic meaning of “the public”: those who are not in government.

“The public” are those who are the on the receiving end of public policy. Having delegated their primary power to elected representatives, they have no direct ability to change it. This definition of “the public” connects fully to the “public” in “public schools,” “public services” or “public transportation” — a public that is a recipient of what a government has decided to provide.

Here’s a corollary to this definition: The further people are from being able to affect the decisions of those representatives, the less connected to government they are and the more fully they become “the public.” We already sense that the meaningful “public” is located at some distance from government. For example, some summit presenters identified a need for civic technologists to go out into “the community,” with “the community” representing a close cognate of “public” in the way I mean it, in the sense that one “goes out” from the policy-implementing place into it. It’s a community that is distant from and does not itself come to government.

And how does this “public,” in its power-distant state, relate to us? The distribution of power – and the benefits that flow from it – is the essence of the practice of politics. According to political scientist Harold Lasswell, the central function of politics is to distribute power: to determine who gets what, how and when. Government is then the mechanism by which these politically-determined benefits are doled out. Realistically, despite our interest in “reinventing government,” there is no possibility at all that we will be disrupting this basic governmental function.

At the same time, it is critical that we realize that joining with the work of government means assuming a form of power ourselves — and leaving “the public” in an important way. By implementing tools to smooth or channel the work of public policy, we are joining in the work of allocating benefits.

Civic tech and its tools serve either to reinforce or redistribute existing lines of power. It’s incumbent on us to contemplate just how we interact with that.

To explore what I mean by this, let’s talk about “efficiency.” Though it might sound like an uncontroversial general good, governmental “efficiency” is not neutral. Its effects depend on which policy is being made more efficient. The efficient implementation of an unjust or punitive policy means an increased amount of injustice or punishment.

This insight is especially important when we recognize that when we describe becoming “efficient,” we inevitably aren’t tightening down all the screws at the same time. It is a well-known observation that laws are selectively implemented and enforced — and in fact, many of us depend on that. Are we actively seeking the perfect enforcement of traffic speed limits? How about penalties for marijuana possession?

So if not all laws are fully implemented, then which are the first screws to be tightened when we become efficient? Often, the ones on those farthest from power, who are least able to complain about it effectively.

When we improve the speed or completeness with which we process the end of a public benefits program, that is substantively less benefit that a particular person will receive. One summit presenter expressed a quiet concern that if Detroit improved the integration of their data about which people had no water because of an inability to pay water bills, that the city would be quicker to take away those people’s children. When data erases the spaces and strategies that people have developed to cope with surviving under conditions of scarce resources — and does not at the same time create additional support for those people — governmental efficiency can materially harm “the public.”

Thinking about how we become closer to government and further from public through the power of our work raises important questions for civic technologists. Whose work are we smoothing or making more effective first? What is the order of attention to problems, and who is advantaged by that order? How is our work political, in the sense of affecting the relative distribution of government goods?

If we seek to benefit the public, we need to think about whether our work reinforces existing power relationships or redistributes power. Does our work help to get people who are distant from power an obviously better claim on it? Does it improve their ability to get their real needs met by giving them additional control over government? The more the beneficiaries of our work are currently distant from government power, and gain more power over government through our work, the more our work can genuinely be considered to benefit the public.

What is the “civic tech” approach to solving civic problems?

A third question for us to ask is whether there are consistent elements describing a “civic tech” approach to civic problems. What distinguishes the use of civic tech for social benefit, as opposed to all other methods of achieving social benefit? Including volunteer (“civic”) labor in software development? Centering the civic solution around a new piece of software? The simple quality of using a new piece of software in the civic solution, while simultaneously including some organizing element?

Though achieving agreement on our problems and constituencies is essential for aligning our community’s goals, identifying our common methods would help increase our joint impact. Allow me to assume that if you’ve read this far you agree with my definition of problems and constituency. If that’s the case, you probably agree with the following as well: If we are focused on addressing the high-priority needs of power-distant people, then we have just set ourselves an enormous challenge. We therefore really need to get more thoughtful about the ways civic technologists go about solving civic problems.

Here is an example of what I mean. The series of conditions and events that collectively describe what happened in Ferguson, Mo. concern high-priority personal safety issues and a number of power-distant people, and thus represent an appropriate focus for the civic tech community. How do civic technologists increase the power that the public has to affect and improve their outcomes in this situation?

At the summit, the solution that was discussed in connection with the Ferguson case was a messaging app that reminded you to attend your court date and to encourage you to pay your fine online.

This is the kind of approach that aims to create small change at the margin rather than addressing deeper, causal issues. It does nothing to address the problem of whether it was appropriate for those citations to be issued in the first place. It does nothing to address the racial tension that leads police to spiral so quickly into escalation. It doesn’t inquire into the nature of civilian oversight over police behavior, it fails to involve municipal funding conditions that lead police to rely on fines as a revenue stream, and it does not increase avenues for appeal and feedback from the public.

This is certainly not to dispute the fact that people should be able to pay their fines and citations online. They absolutely should; making it easier for them to do so is a positive social contribution and a genuine improvement. It’s just to say that this is in no way enough of an improvement given the scale of the problem, and it should be widely understood that this is not the place where civic tech stops.

Rather, civic tech solutions must come to be characterized by marginal changes that are arrayed and coordinated in such a way that they help effect systemic change.

Marginal change contributes to broad, systemic change when the problem and the constituency — as well as the need for further improvements — are all clearly identified. It requires outreach to the affected members of the public in order to determine what marginal changes would be both useful and practical. It requires an awareness of the multiple dimensions of the problem, and that the technology itself can affect some but not all of those dimensions. Change at the margin contributes to systemic change when the apps we develop form part of a comprehensive approach.

To move more deeply into a systemic change approach, civic technologists need to consciously value non-technical skills. Skills in cross-cultural communication, in facilitation, mediation, legal defense (and offense!), and public writing and argumentation are all necessary for achieving deep and systemic change. Coordinating software development with these other activities amplifies the effects of the software and also amplifies the effects of the organizing. Civic tech as a “software plus organizing” effort will bear the most fruit. One pointed — and excellent — question at the summit asked:do we need to teach our civic technologists how to organize or our organizers how to code? It may not matter so long as these skills are understood to be complementary, not substitutes for one another.

The desperate need for civic technologists to pair with people who have a wide variety of organizing-relevant skills becomes particularly acute when we recognize that our core constituency is the power-distant. Many people who are distant from power are also distant from technology. (This is a somewhat self-reinforcing loop: Technology is actually a pretty decent way to access power, if you haven’t noticed!) It was moving to watch a leader from Allied Media describe Detroit’s Disco Tech program, where residents teach each other immediately useful skills — such as teaching older people to text in order to communicate more easily with their grandchildren. It was useful to be reminded that immigrant communities might be more likely to respond to radio spots than text messages. In at least one panel, we celebrated the enduring power of a well-placed bulletin board. We saw at least two excellent examples of policy work, organizing and software development working together in Chicago: the Large Lots program that allowed neighborhood residents to gain legal ownership of the vacant lots near their homes, and the Expung.io program, which provides an easier interface for juvenile record expungement. In both Chicago cases, the app followed initial community and policy work, and the software now provides a persistent backbone that works to encourage further policy evolution. In addition, both of these projects redistribute economically meaningful resources to power-distant groups: Large Lots lets local residents of working-class neighborhoods obtain land for $1, and Expung.io frees people with juvenile records to seek a more lucrative employment future.

The true meaning of the word “technology” encompasses all useful tools, not only the digital. Since this isn’t an automatic insight for the civic tech community, it is especially vital that we remain conscious of the range of necessary skills when developing our strategies. To solve problems with the power-distant public, digital work must be put in service to information gathered through use of “soft skills” like training, like facilitating, outreach, and liaising. People who are not comfortable with technology often do not feel empowered by interacting with it — but everyone feels empowered when they are listened to or taught new skills.

But what if I don’t have a problem with the way power currently works?

Although I know many share my belief that the point of civic tech is to serve the real needs of a power-distant public, I also know this opinion isn’t universal. Based on an unscientific survey of the noises made by my seatmates during the summit plenaries, I know some people seem more excited about projects that seemed to provide an aesthetically-pleasing satisfaction of civic “wants.”

I can understand the logic of this. “Wants” can certainly seem more real than “needs” because government workers are more likely to hear them. “Wants” tend to be expressed by people who are both comfortable – and comfortable working with government. Projects that aim to further the seamlessness of the government experience for this community mean more pleasant interactions with people who have a demonstrated capacity to make themselves heard. Furthermore, these wants likely resonate deeply within the civic technology community as it’s currently constituted. As an educationally and economically privileged community, we are more likely to have experienced these wants ourselves.

Reinforcing this tendency, the problems that spur “wants” are comparatively so easy to solve! “Wants” describe lack of delight, lack of novelty, lack of smoothness. Someone with “wants” does not seek to disrupt the system – merely to make it run more smoothly and efficiently. These are problems for which a simple software solution may in fact be a quickly implemented, actual solution.

To these people I say: We can be so much more than that. We can be bigger than Band-Aids. The gap that currently exists between our awareness that governments are not serving all citizens and the marginal “smoothing” effects of many of our new civic tech products stems from our failure to think about how these products work with the distribution of power.

Where products help redistribute government attention by improving a government’s focus on the expressed desires of the less powerful members of the civitas, civic tech is disruptive in just the way we all hope it will be: It provides a new way to make government more responsive to the constituencies who are currently shut out.

However, civic tech runs the risk of failing to achieve its transformative potential if the community involved in creating it does not pay attention to how their products work with existing power structures. We need to acknowledge that saving an individual a few minutes of time may not truly benefit them if it reinforces their distance from decision-makers. Lumping together civic wants with civic needs as equivalent public goods diminishes the humanity of those with real needs while it reinforces existing privilege.

This is a problem that we can avoid. But in order to achieve our larger goal of social transformation, we’re going to need to show — and talk about, and plan for, and coordinate around — how we will achieve it, in a more conscious and specific sense.

Sep 26, 2014

A deleted photo from a tweet of Sen. Mark Pryor that was caught by the Sunlight Foundation's Politwoops project and celebrates a rare poll showing him leading in the Arkansas senate race against Rep. Tom Cotton.
Deleted image via Politwoops.

In this week's extra-packed roundup of deletions archived by Politwoops, we examine politicians who revoked proclamations about new polling, deleted quiz results, backed down on a call for support from a national party organization and withdrew a demand to know where basketball jerseys are. It's always a surprise what folks will contribute to our project!

We start with a deletion from the campaign account of Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who is battling Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in a Senate race where five of the six top tracked polls by RealClearPolitics rate in Cotton's favor. That final poll showing Pryor two points ahead was the subject of an ebullient tweet saying, "Great news #TeamPryor! Help us keep up the momentum" with the image to the right saying, "Breaking: Poll Shows Pryor Ahead!" After a day the tweet was taken down with no other mention of that poll. The campaign team ignored multiple requests for comment.

The campaign account for Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., bravely shared the perfect results of a quiz about his own Senate race created by the Oregonian. After just 25 seconds, this was deemed too brave, or perhaps too showy, and deleted, sending it to the Politwoops archive. The author of the quiz responded to the deletion saying, "Strange ... not sure what to make of it."

A deleted tweet from Glo Smith, a Republican candidate in Florida's 5th district, with a donation check and restaurant receipt image attached.
Deletion via Politwoops.

Another deleted tweet that's difficult to make sense of is one from Glo Smith, a Republican candidate in Florida's 5th District, that included an image (rotated to the left) of a $500 donation check and restaurant receipt. Amazingly, this is not the first time that a politician's account has tweeted sensitive financial information to all their followers, the campaign for Senate candidate David Perdue, R-Ga., gets that honor.

Unfortunately, this time the Smith campaign compromised the financial information of a private citizen so we took the unprecedented step of adding black bars to the image before sharing the deletion on Politwoops. To Smith's credit, she did respond to my request for comment and said, "it was an error from my phone. Please disregard and do not retweet."

After a full five days, the campaign account for Annette Teijeiro, a Republican congressional candidate in Nevada's 1st District, deleted a retweet of local political reporter, Jon Ralston, who shared her campaign ad with the sarcastic message, "Now THIS is a high-quality ad, tweeps, maybe the best ad of the year, or ever, in the race for Congress in #nv01." Her account refused to respond to my request for comment, though Ralston responded, "Maybe she finally realized I was mocking the ad?"

Another unusual deleted retweet came from the campaign account of Larry Hogan, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, who echoed a tweet at the press secretary of the Republican Governors Association saying, "how about some public show of support from @The_RGA for @Hogan4Governor on a national level. He has a real chance I'm MD." The retweet was removed after nine minutes and continues to live on in Politwoops unexplained.

Finally this week, Democratic D.C. mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser deleted a nonsensical tweet that said, "Wwsqss#sss s s SMS. # Ss a ssss r" and Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., deleted a tweet to Jock's Nitch, a college apparel and merchandise store that asked, "Where's the jersey that goes to those blue shorts? o.O" Jock's Nitch responded, "Should be here any day! Thanks!" It is unclear why Yoder removed his question.

I hope you enjoyed this week on Politwoops as much as I did, and as always please let me know by email if we're missing any accounts!

Sep 26, 2014

An image of Marc Joffe, founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions.
Marc Joffe, founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions. Image credit: Public Sector Credit Solutions 

The Single Audit Act of 1984 (as revised) requires any organization receiving more than $500,000 in federal grants to submit an independently verified audit to the federal government annually. Over 44,000 organizations filed 2012 audits which are due within nine months of the end of the organization’s fiscal year.

Filers include states, cities, counties, school districts and other local government agencies as well as Native American tribes and private not-for-profit institutions such as universities and hospitals. Over 18,000 of the 2012 filers were local governments.

The Census Bureau collects the audits on behalf of the Office of Management and Budget, who’s Circular A-133 governs the filing process. Each filer must provide Census with a completed Form SF-SAC containing descriptive information about the organization and the audit, as well as an electronic copy of the audit itself. The audit packages are dozens or even hundreds of pages in length and typically contain financial statements, a management discussion of the agency’s performance, an audit opinion and details of federal grants being administered by the agency. A good example of a single audit package is the City and County of San Francisco’s filing which can be found here.

The federal government thus has an incredible trove of data on local government financial performance. This collection of 18,000 annual audits can tell researchers an enormous amount about local government financial conditions and about how these agencies spend federal grants. Unfortunately, this valuable resource is not available to the public.

After collecting each audit electronically, Census distributes it to the federal entity that has the largest involvement with the local government filer. For example, a rural county’s audit may be sent to the Department of Agriculture or Department of Interior while records for a city with a large concentration of public housing might go to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Over 100 federal entities may receive and review single audits in their role as “cognizant” or “oversight” agencies (these terms are defined under §___.400 Responsibilities on this web page).

The Census Bureau also publishes all the descriptive data from Forms SF-SAC on its Federal Audit Clearinghouse web site. The public can use this site to search for audit filers and view their forms on-line, but the detailed audit packages are not available on the site – at least not yet.

Ideally, the audits themselves should be published by Census together with the contents of Form SF-SAC. Many single audit filers already publish their entire federal audit packages – or at least the financial statement portion – on their web sites. The San Francisco audit linked above is just one of hundreds of examples. Many local governments also upload their audited financial statements to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s EMMA web site as discussed in Alisha Green’s Sunlight blog post earlier this year. Finally, a few states maintain repositories of local government audits. Examples include Michigan and Oregon.

Although many of the audits in other states are already online, hunting them down at individual local government web sites or on EMMA is a tricky, time consuming process. Take it from me: My group located audits for 316 California local governments last year – with the help of a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov grant. Local government posting procedures are highly variable; in some instances we had to file California Public Records Act requests to obtain the audits.

Getting single audits via FOIA

To better understand how the federal government stores these audits and what barriers exist to releasing them, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a sample of four single audits. The idea of doing a “test FOIA” as a way of learning the bureaucratic dynamics came from a fellow Transparency Camp speaker, David Reed, who is a member of the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee. Filing test FOIAs is a great tactic for transparency advocates in many fields. It costs nothing, takes little effort at the start (you can generally initiate a FOIA by completing a simple online form) and can provide useful insights.

In my case, I received all four of the single audits I “FOIAed,” but the whole process took 2 and a half months and required multiple follow-ups on my part. I have posted some of the agency responses (including one of the audits) here. To summarize, this is what I learned:

  •  Census has the documents, but does not believe it has the authority to release them.
  •  Instead, Census refers FOIA requests to the Cognizant or Oversight federal agency responsible for receiving the audit.
  •  The Cognizant or Oversight agency typically requests permission from the local government filer, but if there is no response within ten days, they treat the lack of response as a grant of permission. In all four of my cases, the filer either gave permission to the federal agency or did not respond.

The test FOIA exercise shows that the federal government can retrieve these valuable public documents and that there seems to be no expectation of privacy on the part of local government audit filers. Thus, there appears to be no reason for the Census not to publish the local government audits.

Hope for the future

Based on a review of regulatory comments and an email dialog with Census, it appears that the main objection to releasing single audit packages is that they may include Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Reviewing 44,000+ documents annually to scrub PII is a large undertaking. However, this concern seems only to apply to Indian tribes and some types of private not-for-profit organizations. Since single audits all carry an entity-type code, it is simple to distinguish the local government audits and just make those public.

In the long term, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has plans to improve single audit transparency. Recently, OMB published new single audit regulations in the Federal Register. Under these new rules, local government audit packages for fiscal years ending Dec. 31, 2014 or later will be publicly available. If the new rules are implemented on time (which is not assured) we should start seeing reporting packages on the Census web site in late 2015.

On the downside, the new regulations lift the single audit threshold to $750,000 in annual federal awards – which will exempt roughly 2,000 of the 18,000 local governments from filing. It also leaves a large corpus of previous audits not open to the public. If released, these historic audits would show researchers how local governments around the country dealt with the financial crisis.

Since Vallejo, California filed for municipal bankruptcy in 2008, concerns about U.S. local government solvency have grown. In 2013, these worries reached a crescendo with Detroit’s Chapter 9 filing. This year, the U.S. Treasury Department has even created an Office of State and Local Finance to address the perceived local government fiscal crisis.

The federal government’s repository of single audits is a valuable resource that can help researchers investigate, diagnose and ultimately help prevent local government fiscal crises. Rather than wait until 2015, now is the time to make this resource publicly available to assist in our understanding of local government finances.

Marc Joffe is the founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions (PSCS), which applies open data and analytics to rating government bonds. Before starting PSCS, Marc was a Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics. You can contact him at marc@publicsectorcredit.org. Marc is also one of the winners of Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Grants.

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

Sep 26, 2014

If the return of pumpkin spice lattés and supermarket candy corn isn't enough to get you in the Halloween spirit, the answer may be to simply turn on your TV. With the general election less than 40 days away and outside spending ramping up, things are getting scary in the political ad world.

While fear mongering in campaign ads isn't a new phenomenon (see the Lyndon Johnson campaign's "Daisy" ad on LivingRoomCandidate.org), in 2014, Sunlight has witnessed an increasing number of third party groups using scare tactics in their TV and internet ads, which we follow through Ad Hawk.

New ad campaigns from well-funded groups like the National Rifle Association and NextGen Action Climate Action illustrate just how emotionally-charged campaign rhetoric can be.

In Louisiana, as Sen. Mary Landrieu struggles to distance herself from Democratic leadership on energy and environmental issues in the oil-rich state, she's facing a new swipe at her conservative credentials from the NRA, in an ad that equates a vote for the incumbent with a vote against personal safety.

The senator is running neck and neck against Republican Bill Cassidy in a race that's already attracted over $20 million.

The gun group's new ad shows a mother and infant at home alone, at night, when an intruder breaks in through the front door of her home. A narrator cautions viewers:

It happens like that [door crashing open] the police can't get their in time. How you defend yourself is up to you. It's your choice, but Mary Landrieu voted to take away your gun rights.

The spot ends with the words "Vote like your safety depends on it" emblazoned in capital letters (so you know they're serious) across a crime scene with flashing police lights.

But armed intruders aren't the only thing voters have to worry about. NextGen Climate Action, the campaign arm of billionaire coal investor-turned-environmentalist Tom Steyer, has been running hard-hitting environmentally focused ads against Republican candidates in federal races across the country. The super PAC's hit on Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who's running to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, was one of its most dire.

With images of billowing smokestacks and a message that the colorado conservative would outlaw common forms of birth control, the spot claims Gardner, who has received plenty of campaign cash from oil and energy interests, would do away with all safeguards against pollution.

Cory Gardner wants it his way. No limits on polluters, so polluters and his big oil backers can dump and profit while taxpayers and our kids pay the price.

The super PAC also recently went live with an ad targeting Florida governor Rick Scott, peppered with images of rising water and extreme weather, in a tongue-in-cheek ad about a fictional ark the Republican was building for his campaign backers.

But while recent spots from NextGen and the NRA are some of the most recent examples of ads that take going negative to the extreme, they're only the tip of the iceberg. In recent months viewers Arizona and Iowa have seen similarly charged appeals from groups like Americans for Responsible Leadership, which ran an ad featuring an appeal against Martha McSally, R, featuring the mother of a deceased victim of domestic violence and a spot from the National Republican Congressional Committee that told viewers that Democrat Staci Appel, candidate in Iowa's Third District, supports "passports for terrorists" and is "dangerously wrong" for Iowa. And while emotional electoral appeals may run counter to the notion that voters should make their decision based on a rational, informed choice. This style of advertising has its proponents.

As Republican media consultant Fred Davis wrote in an article for Campaigns and Elections magazine, on what he deems "neuromarketing":

The idea of neuromarketing is that the use of a base emotional appeal—love, fear, humor, anger—will be more effective than a factual appeal. It suggests that visuals are more readily accepted by the subconscious than words.

...

Neuromarketing is not magic. It’s not cheating. It’s simply marketing to people in a way that’s most effective. Use pictures. Use humor. Use comfort. Use the same emotions that marketers use each day to tell us about automobiles, beer and banks.

With total outside expenditures already eclipsing $300 million and over a month left until election day, voters in competitive districts should expect to be see plenty more of it.

Sep 26, 2014

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis including open government plans, state campaign spending, data quality, and more.

A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • Who will be the next US CIO? (Federal Computer Week)
  • The President highlighted 4 new open government goals in an extension of America's Open Government Partnership plan. (Federal Computer Week)
  • When it comes to open data, governments need to start focusing on data quality by "dogfooding" the data that they release, or using it themselves to ensure that it's good. (Anthea Watson Strong)
  • Congress has given oversight over the DHS, in part, to over 90 different committees and subcommittees. The agency would like to simplify that system. (Washington Post)
International News
  • More reflection on the OGP at three, this time pondering if governments are more likely to reform before or after joining an initiative like it. (Tisne.org)
State and Local News
  • Out of state money is flooding the governor's race in Maine. Current Governor Paul LePage is a tea party favorite and seen as vulnerable to multiple challengers. (Washington Times)
  • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is on the air across the country, airing more ads last week than even the Koch brothers and other conservative PACs. (Public Integrity)
Events This week Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 

Sep 25, 2014

The unveiling of the new Brady Briefing Room on July 11, 2007. Photo credit: Eric Draper

At Sunlight, we pride ourselves on promoting transparency and journalism through technology. So when we read Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi’s excellent but disturbing story about White House flacks taking it upon themselves to edit journalists’ pool reports before they are distributed to the press corps, we decided that the White House reporters need to find a new publisher.

As much as people love to hate the White House press corps, it’s important to understand that the “pool reports” they produce play an important role in keeping the public informed — the the occupant of the White House accessible.

“Pool reports” have nothing to do with sunshine or chlorine, but represent an unusual feat of collaboration by a normally competitive press corps. They are the raw materials of a news story — quotes by newsmakers, quick word sketches of scenes, snippets of audio and video — gathered by a small group of reporters who follow the president into close quarters and serve as the eyes and ears of the larger press corps. The poolers, usually a couple of wire service reporters, a couple of print reporters, a radio reporter and a TV crew,  often collaborate for the sake of speed and accuracy and then shares its information with other reporters.

The information that the pool reporters provide can be very revealing. For instance, at Sunlight, we have begun adding pool reports from presidential fundraisers to the back end of our Political Party Time database, because they include lots of interesting and potentially important details such as the names of donors in attendance.

So we were uneasy to learn that some reporters have been pressured to alter their reports by the publisher, aka the White House. While some of the emendations and deletions (a presidential aide’s swoon, a politically charged Obama joke) might seem frivolous, what’s at issue here is precedent. This represents the peak of a slippery slope we don’t want to go down. And that’s why we think it’s time to for the reporters to begin putting out their own pool reports.

The practice of the White House disseminating the reports dates back to the paper era, when reporters obtained poolers’ notes from copies that White House press assistants placed in bins in the White House press room. Today’s technology offers an opportunity to liberate the pool reports. Below are a couple possible ways:

A public blog: Since, as Farhi’s piece notes, pool reports have become so widely disseminated as to be almost fully public, why not go all the way? Poolers could publish everything direct to the web. How about a site like whitehousepoolreport.tumblr.com? That would eliminate the middleman and vastly increase transparency. The reports would go straight from the reporters’ notebooks (or cameras or recorders) to the World Wide Web.

A moderated group: Even if the White House Correspondents Association isn’t willing to go that far (there may be some legitimate security issues), it seems the Google Group route that the group has tried out presents a viable alternative. It’s possible to create a private, moderated group, though it would involve more work. We can appreciate the challenge for White House reporters, who mostly also have more-than-full-time jobs, and need to find someone to moderate an ever-changing list: People come and go from the White House press corps all the time. And pool reports come in at all hours (think about when the president is travels to other time zones)

But surely an organization that every year manages to pull off the intimate little gathering for 3,000 or so that has come to be known as NerdProm has the wherewithal to tackle the problem, especially with some help from civic-minded techs. And, as any 21st century public relations professional knows, services exist that help maintain and, when necessary, cull distribution lists. Yes they cost money but wouldn't that be better use of WHCA dues than another course at the NerdProm?

In this year of White House Correspondents Association’s 100th birthday, it’s time to turn high-tech. Take advantage of the tools available to be your own publishers. The first draft of history will be more reliable for it.