• Event Recap: Bringing Light into the Law

    Posted on
    October 17, 2014,
    Time
    10:13 a.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey

    A photo of speakers at a panel event

    On Monday, September 22nd a group of experts joined the Advisory Committee on Transparency and the Sunlight Foundation to discuss the increasingly complicated nature of public access to law.

    Laws passed by Congress and state legislatures are far from the only documents that have the power of law. Technical standards, secret court opinions, municipal regulations, complex international trade documents, and more touch every American. These are often nearly impossible, and sometimes illegal, for the public to access.

    Participants in the panel discussion, moderated by the Sunlight Foundation’s Matt Rumsey, covered the full scope of this topic from the technical challenges that go along with making the law accessible to the legal arguments used by government to hide the law -- and by watchdogs to open it up.

    Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel and policy adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union, highlighted some of his organization’s efforts to open up legal documents that have the force of law. These documents, while never passed by a legislature or reviewed by a court, guide executive branch policy in cases related to torture, targeted killings, surveillance, and more. He used these examples to highlight a number of serious dangers associated with secret law and forcefully argued that making law in secret and withholding it from public knowledge de-legitimizes the lawmaking process and leads to bad law.

    Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, focused on a few specific reforms that could significantly improve public access to law. She noted some simple reforms to the Freedom of Information Act, that could become law soon, may make it easier to gain access to vital executive branch legal documents. She also highlighted the troublesome issue of “access for pay” that comes up when private companies are given control over legal documents and then hide those documents behind paywalls.

    Daniel Schuman, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, set the historical stage by explaining that access to law has been baked into American democracy since the start of our union. While citizens have always had an expectation of easy access, the Internet changed everything by making it exponentially easier to disseminate and access information. Given technological changes and the power of our government, Schuman argued, citizen access must be proportional to the law’s ability to affect lives.

    As the only government employee on the panel it might have been expected that V. David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Washington, DC City Council, would feel differently than the other panelists. But, that was far from the case. David detailed some of his efforts, both as a government employee and private citizen, to make the laws of the District of Columbia more easily available to its citizens. He particularly highlighted some of the technical -- and contractual -- challenges associated with making complex legal documents available online.

    All of the speakers agreed that public access to law is vital to a healthy, well functioning democracy.

    Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties, we are not able to share an audio or video recording of the event. You can view a more detailed wrap up from U.S. News and World Report.

  • Bringing Light into the Law: Access to Law in a Rapidly Changing World

    Posted on
    September 15, 2014,
    Time
    10:50 a.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey

    Public access to the laws of the land is a principle that has thrived for centuries. Without it, citizens would be powerless to navigate everyday interactions with their governments and the “rule of law” could collapse. Unfortunately, the scope of “law” has expanded rapidly and public access is struggling to keep up.

    Laws passed by Congress and State legislatures are far from the only documents that have the power of law. Technical standards, secret court opinions, municipal regulations, complex international trade documents, and more touch every American. These are often nearly impossible, and sometimes illegal, for the public to access.

    The Advisory Committee on Transparency is excited to host a conversation on Monday, September 22 from 2:00 - 3:30 pm in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building exploring these “secret laws” and discussing ways to boost the public's ability to access and understand them. You can register for this free event here.

    Panelists:

    *Daniel Schuman, Policy Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

    *Gabe Rottman, Legislative Counsel and Policy Adviser, American Civil Liberties Union

    *Patrice McDermott, Executive Director, OpenTheGovernment.org

    *V. David Zvenyach, General Counsel, Council of the District of Columbia

    *Moderator: Matt Rumsey, the Sunlight Foundation

    RSVP: snlg.ht/ACTDarkLaw

  • The Future of FOIA: Moving the Freedom of Information Act into the 21st Century

    Posted on
    March 11, 2014,
    Time
    9:27 a.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey
    To celebrate Sunshine Week and recent House passage of the FOIA Act, the Sunlight Foundation and the Advisory Committee on Transparency are hosting an event on the Future of FOIA. The panel discussion will assess efforts and ideas to bring the Freedom of Information Act into the future, ensuring that it continues to be an effective tool to shed light on the inner workings of government far into the 21st century.

    The event will be held on Wednesday, March 19 from 2:00 - 3:30 p.m. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building. The panel of experts will include:

    • Amy Bennett: Assistant Director, OpenTheGovernment.org
    • Ali Ahmad: Majority Staff, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
    • Corinna Zarek: Policy Adviser for Open Government, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
    • Krista Boyd: Minority Staff, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
    • Ginger McCall, Moderator: Associate Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center
    You can RSVP here. We hope that you can join us!
  • The DATA Act and Beyond: Video and recap

    Posted on
    January 24, 2014,
    Time
    2:03 p.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey

    Last month, we convened a panel of experts to discuss trending topics in government spending transparency. Our panel included Hudson Hollister, Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition, Nancy DiPaolo, Chief of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, and Navin Beekarry, an Associate fellow at George Washington University Law School's Center for Law, Economics, and Finance.

    We are happy to share video from the event:

  • The DATA Act and Beyond: An Event Exploring Government Spending Transparency

    Posted on
    December 11, 2013,
    Time
    1:38 p.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey

    Following the flow of government spending data is a complex, and often fruitless, pursuit. At the federal level there are few standards to ensure consistent reporting across agencies, public reporting is limited, and the accuracy of data is difficult to verify. The infrastructure used to track federal spending has often been updated in an ad-hoc manner and is in need of a thoughtful redesign.

    The DATA Act, legislation that incorporates lessons learned and best practices from federal agencies, is moving through Congress and could soon become law. If passed, it will ensure that more, and more accurate, federal spending data is made publicly available online.

    We are excited to host a panel assessing the current state of spending transparency and examining the challenges facing its future. Our group of experts will discuss the DATA Act's prospects, detail efforts underway within the executive branch, and explore the future of spending transparency. The event will take place on Monday, December 16 at 2:00 p.m. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building.

    We hope you will be able to join us and ask that you please RSVP here.

    Panelists:

    *Hudson Hollister: Executive Director, the Data Transparency Coalition

    *Nancy DiPaolo: Chief of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board

    *Navin Beekarry: Associate Fellow, Center for Law, Economics, and Science George Washington University

    *Moderator Kaitlin Devine: Senior Web Developer, the Sunlight Foundation

  • Transparency Caucus Event - FOIA: Today's Challenges and Tomorrow's Opportunities

    Posted on
    March 11, 2013,
    Time
    12:32 p.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey

    The Congressional Transparency Caucus is holding an event this Tuesday, March 12, 2013 to discuss recent progress in FOIA reform and explore what still needs to be done to improve public access to government records. The event will take place in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building and will start at 3 p.m.

    The Transparency Caucus will hear from a number of noted FOIA experts:

    The Congressional Transparency Caucus is co-chaired by Representative's Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Darrell Issa (R-CA). The Caucus seeks to enact legislation that will bring openness and accessibility to the federal government.

  • Videos on "Kick-starting the 113th Congress"

    Posted on
    February 5, 2013,
    Time
    5:07 p.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey
    At last Monday's Advisory Committee on Transparency event, 16 lightning talks were given on transparency-related topics like FOIA, lobbying reform, and opening up congress. The three-minute presentations distilled some of the best thinking by advocates and activists on what the government could do right now to be more open. We're pleased to make those videos available to you.   Here's a list of the talks, broken up by issue area, with links to the videos. Lobbying Reform
    • Sarah Bryner, of the Center for Responsive Politics, encouraged the release of federal lobbyist unique IDs alongside other lobbying data. (Video)
    • Lisa Rosenberg, a Government Affairs Consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, argued that lobbyist registration rules should be tightened to catch those who avoid the current high reporting thresholds. (Video)
    • Robert Maguire, of the Center for Responsive Politics, argued that the IRS should publish online the tax reports that all nonprofits are required to file and include all organizations in summary data. (Video)
    Congressional Operations The Executive Branch
    • Jeremy Miller, the Policy Director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, urged expansion of public access to the DOJ's office of Legal Counsel opinions.  (Video)
    • Jim Harper, of the Cato Institute, argued that the Federal government's organization chart should be online in a machine-readable format. (Video)
    • Hudson Hollister, the Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition, urged facilitation of Federal spending tracking by requiring all federal awards to have a unique government-wide identifier. (Video)
    Improving Member Offices
    • Lorelei Kelly, the Smart Congress Pilot Lead at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, encouraged members of Congress to partner with local colleges to add "Technology Mashup Fellows" in their district offices. (Video)
    • Josh Tauberer, who runs GovTrack.us, argued that members of Congress should hire a "transparency director." (Video)
    FOIA
    • Rick Blum, the Coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, argued that any attempt to carve exemptions into FOIA must go through the relevant committees of jurisdiction. (Video)
    • Justin McCarthy, of Judicial Watch, contended that the FOIA's "deliberative process" and other b(5) privileges should be explicitly defined in law. (Video)
    • Gavin Baker, an Open Government Policy Analyst at the Center for Effective Government, argued that agencies should be required to proactively publish more data online. (Video)
    Courts and Access to Law
    • Steve Schultze, the Associate Director at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University argued that Federal court opinions stored in PACER should be freely available online to all taxpayers. (Video)
    • Harlan Yu, a partner at Robinson + Yu, argued that Federal law should be made more understandable by enacting the U.S. Code into positive law. (Video)
  • Kick-starting the 113th Congress: Ideas Congress can use

    Posted on
    January 16, 2013,
    Time
    5:31 p.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey

    Looking for ideas to make government more transparent and accountable? Join the The Advisory Committee on Transparency on January 28th for "Kick-starting the 113th Congress," a series of short presentations on what Congress could do right now to make government more transparent.

    The presentations will take place on Capitol Hill, in the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2203. After the dozen-or-so lightning talks, there will be an opportunity to mingle and talk with the presenters.

    The lineup includes representatives of the Cato Institute, the Center for Effective Government, the Center for Responsive Politics, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Data Transparency Coalition, GovTrack.us, Judicial Watch, the New America Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org, Princeton University, Robinson & Yu LLP, the Sunlight Foundation, the Sunshine in Government Initiative, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Please RSVP to snlg.ht/ACTCongress. Read more for a full list of speakers.

  • Talk to Congress: Public, Orgs Invited to Share Transparency Ideas at Jan. ACT Event

    Posted on
    January 7, 2013,
    Time
    11:17 a.m.
    by
    Matt Rumsey

    The Advisory Committee on Transparency is excited to invite the public and advocacy organizations to speak directly to Congress about making our government more transparent. The January 28th event, entitled Kickstarting the 113th Congress," will feature a diverse array of speakers giving short talks on concrete, actionable proposals to open up the government.

    Individuals and organizations interested in participating should submit presentation proposals to http://snlg.ht/ACTSignUp by close of business on Thursday, January 10. Times slots are limited.

    Talks will be modeled after Ignite Talks, an example of which you can watch here. Each speaker will have three minutes and 12 powerpoint slides to define the problem and propose a solution.

    The presentations will take place on Capitol Hill, in the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2203. Afterward, speakers will be encouraged to mingle with and answer questions from the audience.

    If you have any questions, or want to learn more, contact mrumsey (at) sunlightfoundation.com

  • Transparency and the Obama presidency: Looking Back and Looking Forward – Video and Event Recap

    Posted on
    December 7, 2012,
    Time
    9:51 a.m.
    by
    Alisha Green

    How transparent has President Barack Obama's administration been? While the first term seemed to start with several bold initiatives, members of the transparency community have been disappointed with the apparent lack of initiative since then. Panelists gave the administration mixed reviews at the Dec. 3, 2012 Advisory Committee on Transparency event examining what's happened over the past four years and what in store for the next four.

    Participants in the panel discussion, moderated by Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation and director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, had a hard time listing the Obama administration's accomplishments without mentioning caveats in the same breath. Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the administration's efforts may have been well intended but were not always well executed. The decision to release the White House visitor logs, for example, resulted in more transparency about who is trying to influence the executive branch, but also resulted in some staff taking meetings to coffee shops.

    Weismann gave the administration credit for working to make some changes at a time when there is a history of secrecy in many federal agencies. She pointed to the Open Government Directive as one way the White House tried to direct agencies to adopt a more open culture. Changing that culture can be very difficult, and it certainly takes time, she noted.

    Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, looked at the progress of the administration from the open data perspective. He said that while there were strides toward publishing more government data, the most useful government data is still not being published - information, for example, used by executive branch agencies to guide their decision making. Another problem is that some of the data that is being published is not in a machine readable format, which makes it difficult for outside groups to analyze and reuse that information. One of the biggest questions about the administration's transparency record, Hollister said, comes in regard to government spending. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, known as the DATA Act, was proposed in 2011 and enjoys bipartisan support, but the White House has actively undermined the spending-disclosure measure.

    Josh Gerstein, a White House Reporter at POLITICO, framed the administration's transparency record as a tale of two Obamas. The President seemed to initially be much more supportive of openness, but has since backed away from it. In the current negotiations about the so-called fiscal cliff, for instance, Obama has allowed a series of secret meetings with CEOs, interest groups, and others. After being criticized for similar moves during the heatlhcare reform talks several years ago, Obama had said he realized a need to be more transparent. His actions belie his words.

    All of the panelists agreed more needs to be done if Obama wants to improve his transparency record, and his second term will afford him a second chance. The panelists also discussed the need for the transparency initiatives that do exist to be institutionalized lest they be lost.

    The video of the event is available on C-Span.

    The conversation drew attention in the media, with Washington Post coverage of the discussion highlighting some of the administration's achievements and disappointments.

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