Meet Ellen Miller

2009 was a busy year for the Sunlight Foundation, and 2010 promises more of the same. In its quest to make government at all levels more transparent, the 4-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based group accomplished much, says co-founder and executive director Ellen Miller. The foundation created an online database of the U.S. House’s expenditure reports, making the information readily available to the public for the first time. Once the U.S. Senate releases its information – that’s expected to happen at the end of the second quarter – Sunlight will make it available as well, Miller says. It also developed a searchable database the White House visitor logs.

Sunlight plans to compile a national database catalog. The goal: to create an interactive catalog for all data the executive branch is putting out under, plus state and local data, too. The idea, Miller says, is that there be a single point for someone interested in a topic – say the environment – to search the relevant data, whether it’s collected at the federal, state or municipal level.

Q: What else are you doing?

A: “We’ll be creating more tools. We’re very interested in the iPhone and Android; we’ve created two apps already this year – Real Time Congress and Congress. We’re bringing state campaign finance data and federal data together in one place, (so) the user can download it and search by name. . . . One of the other big things we’re launching this year is a national campaign, a state-based campaign to create transparent government from the most local level to the federal level. We’re identifying 300 citizen leaders (to) create a national force. . . . And we’ll be rolling out Open Congress, a joint project with the Participatory Politics Foundation, at the state level. By Sept. 30, you’ll see Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, California.”

Q: What are the biggest challenges for those of us who care about democracy and transparency?

A: “The biggest challenges are cultural. We have an administration that has said, ‘This is how we want to do things.’ But we know there’s a cultural resistance in government (to transparency). Things change slowly when it comes to government. The key challenge is the willingness to do this, the associate cost the government will have to bear as the transition (to transparency) takes place. There’s a great deal of excitement about it. . . . We have a very active advocacy campaign that’s focused on the federal level working with both the (Obama) administration and Capitol Hill that will help redefine what transparency means. We’re also looking at best practices.”

Miller says this month, during Sunshine Week, new transparency legislation will be unveiled. And she says there are plans to create a transparency caucus in the U.S. House. There are also  efforts underway to respond to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United. And Sunlight will continue to identify government data that should be public but isn’t.

Q: All this costs money. Do you resent that your group has to raise and spend money to get the government to do what it should be doing anyway?

A: “No, not at all. . . . I don’t mind modeling behavior and showing (government) how it has to be done. It’s an open door now (with the Obama administration), and even with Congress, though that door has some stuff behind it. There’s a little more resistance in Congress. But if we can model the good uses for this data, then this is a purpose for a non-profit.”

Q: Which social media tools are helping most in the battle to make government more transparent?

A: “Sunlight is a huge believer in the World Wide Web. The most recent example was last week – where we embedded the video from the president’s health care summit. We blogged it live and added important details. . .  . We’re great users of Twitter; we’re developing a series of widgets that will allow anyone to embed them on their sites. We may pioneer, but we’re also making it available for others to use.”

Q: Before he was elected, President Obama vowed to make the federal government more transparent. Has his administration delivered? What can everyday people do to ensure the president keeps his campaign promise?

A: “They’re in the process of delivering. We’re certainly not satisfied with everything we see. It’s not perfect, certainly the data is not. But at least we have sites like Before we didn’t have this data . . . We can press them to make more relevant data available. It’s a wonderful conversation to be having. We feel like we’re pushing them. The administration gets kudos for moving forward, but there’s a lot to do.”

Q: For many of us, getting public documents and attending government meetings at the local or state level is challenging. What advice do you have?

A: “A lot of that is going to come through our community engagement and campaign work. There is such a thing as a cycle of transparency. Journalists have to be involved, non-profits have to be involved, government has to be involved. One thing has to lead to another. More requests for information beget information.”

Ellen Miller will be discussing “how everyone is changing everything” with Steven VanRoekel of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission March 10 at WeMedia. She’ll also be part of a panel discussion later that day on nonprofit journalism.

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