How Far We’ve Come


Derek Willis


September 11, 2010

There’s been a bit of discussion lately in the open government community about how to assess federal government efforts at meaningful transparency. Of the stuff I’ve heard and read, I tend to come down on the side of Gunnar Hellekson, who writes that the Sunlight Foundation (a frequent and leading voice on transparency) has “dangerously conflated transparency for reform” in criticizing the pace of access to quality government data.

Sunlight’s Tom Lee disagreed, defending the criticism of on the grounds that the site has been around for three years: “If it’s too soon to call for fixing them, how much longer should we wait?” As Gunnar notes, Sunlight has earned a bit of a right to issue such statements, as they’ve done quite a lot in the cause of increased access to government (as opposed to other outfits which produce non-items like how much weathermen give to political campaigns – seriously). But in my opinion, even Sunlight hasn’t earned the right to say that the government is “more interested in style than substance” when they consider LeBron James’ political contributions worthy of mention.

While most of the efforts to increase transparency in government are fairly public and may seem pretty obvious to most people, sometimes it’s hard to understand the situation within government agencies. This isn’t an excuse for employees who would seek to hinder public access to government records — I’ve encountered relatively few of those — but an honest accounting of the situation. I was reminded of the gap between an impatient transparency community (including journalists) and government agencies while looking back at some older work emails. Here’s one, from early 2006, that I received while I was at The Washington Post:

I am the Systems and Web Adminstrator for Senator Blanche Lincoln. I’m interested in linking from Sen. Lincoln’s website to the Congress Votes Database you designed. What do I need to do legally to add this link?

Now, clearly this isn’t a question of the technical ability to add a link to a senator’s Web site. It’s about the process, the culture, an entirely new way of doing things. So is the appropriate response to say, “Holy crap, this is unacceptable.”? I’d say no. If I got an email like that today, that would be cause for alarm. But that mindset seems so far away now, as it should. Small victory, perhaps, but that’s how long-term campaigns are built. is a really useful step from Sunlight, one of the most useful things they’ve done, imho, because they’ve taken an issue where access isn’t the main issue, but quality, and they’ve done their research. But there are times when, as well-intentioned as their efforts are, they don’t make things clearer. I truly admire the technical work behind Poligraft, but it does not help me understand the issue of influence any more than I did. In some cases, it simply overwhelms me rather than point to the most important stuff.

I’m grateful that organizations like Sunlight are pushing for greater access to accurate public data. It’s not too much to ask. But just as government processes can seem alien and counterproductive at times, so can those of transparency advocates. My hope is that both sides continue to work in good faith on what is a long road. You don’t always have to use carrots, but if you’re willing to do the meaningful work, when you do resort to the sticks you won’t end up having to defend yourselves as much.