Sunshine Week: Shining a Light On Open Government and Public Information 

National takes on the need to keep public information easily accessible

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Rebooting Transparency

By Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics

The promise of the developing transparency movement in this country is greater accountability of our elected officials.

Embedded in that promise is a hope for more openness, greater efficiency and accountability in how lawmakers and government officials care for the public's interests, spend taxpayer money and combat corruption.

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis made his famous statement--"sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants"--in 1913, he was focused on the corrupting influence of major corporations and monopolies in all aspects of American life.

It's now nearly a century later, and in many ways the promise of transparency is being refined, enabled by the Internet and ever-expanding troves of data. Watchdog groups and new media outlets are mixing and matching different types of information to tell the story of how our electoral system affects our public policy process and how our tax money is spent.

Call it sunlight rebooted. I'm sure Brandeis would approve.

But for all the good work done over the past two decades by groups like the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Project Vote Smart, the Center for Public Integrity and others, we understand that we've just scraped the surface of what is possible.

The Center for Public Integrity's recent work with the Wall Street Journal to examine the Medicare claims database for patterns of fraud and abuse is a glaring example of how access to basic data can save the taxpayers millions by revealing where abuses appear to be prevalent.

Texas launched an expenditures database for vendors and purchases in 2007.

Comptroller Susan Combs reported in Governing magazine in May 2009 ("See-Thru Government" by Ellen Perlman) that the state had found $4.2 million in "efficiencies," or potential savings, simply by combining all state spending into one database and looking for patterns.

The promise is real. But it isn't easy.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics (followthemoney.org) takes on a Herculean task, compiling campaign-finance data from all 50 states, which have 50 different sets of laws, 50 different disclosure agencies, 50 reporting requirements and 50 report formats. Despite the obstacles, the institute's efforts have resulted in a database of more than 19 million records chronicling $16 billion in contributions. Combining that with official lobbyist registrations from all 50 states reveals the types of patterns that tell voters when a group's legislative activities reveal it is trying to protect itself over the public's best interest.

The institute and other watchdog groups that harvest public data understand the power of accurate information and put it on the Web, open-source, for others to innovate with. We also understand that data is just a tool. It needs a curious, determined individual or group to put it in context, which gives it value.

While the promise of transparency is a more accountable democracy and efficient government--and it is a promise that can be realized--it will only happen when citizens and voters pick up the tool and put it to good use.

Only then will the sunlight reboot be complete.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics collects and analyzes campaign contribution information on state-level candidates, political party committees and ballot committees. Explore the free, searchable database of contributions online at followthemoney.org.

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