News & Politics

The Insider: Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation

Confounder of the Sunlight Foundation, Ellen Miller works to combine open-source-technology movement with the open-government movement.

Ellen Miller wants to open up Capitol Hill to outside eyes.

Ellen Miller has spent decades around Capitol Hill looking at money’s influence on Washington. In the process she founded two groups focused on money and politics: the Center for Responsive Politics—the force behind the campaign-donation-disclosure database—and Public Campaign. Now, as cofounder of the Dupont Circle–based Sunlight Foundation, she works to combine the open-source-technology movement with the open-government movement.

• Sunlight was founded two years ago to harness the Internet and social media to shine more light on Congress, to digitize existing political information and put it online and into the hands of citizens. We want to create 21st-century-style accountability for lawmakers and help facilitate better connections between lawmakers and their constituents. We think about our work as handing out tens of thousands of flashlights to people rather than focusing one single spotlight on the inner workings of the Hill.

• One of our goals is to have every report filed by a member of Congress posted online in real time. We want to expand the reporting requirements too so that the work of Congress is an open book. We know there are some on Capitol Hill who are open to using technology, but there’s a cultural resistance—slowly, slowly breaking down—to revealing more and revealing it faster.

• It’s no longer acceptable for a member of Congress or any government agency to file paper reports and store them in three-ring black binders in the basement of some building. Who has access to that? It’s ridiculous; it’s outdated, and it isn’t real disclosure in today’s world.

• If Congress isn’t ready to put everything online, we will make it happen ourselves: We fund organizations to digitize the information; we prototype new ways to look at the data that are citizen-friendly; we’re in the forefront of creating tools to make the data more digestible. But fundamentally we believe that it’s government’s responsibility to provide the data about its work to the public.

• The Punch Clock campaign was one example of our work—launched to encourage members of Congress to post their calendars online. When we started this campaign there were no members of Congress who did this, and now there are eight or nine of them. And while there’s a lot of resistance to revealing that much information to the public, some lawmakers now believe that a high level of transparency is an antidote to the appearance of corruption.

• Data and the accessibility of data are key to understanding how Washington really works. It’s information that’s crucial for citizens to have in order to participate in their democracy. We need to know, in real time, things like who’s lobbying whom, how lawmakers spend our money, who our elected officials meet with and about what, who contributes to their campaigns, what interventions they make with regulatory agencies, and information about lawmakers’ personal investments. These are the sorts of things that citizens need to know in order to make informed decisions.

• Capitol Hill is awash in private money. The candidates who win today are the candidates who prove their political viability by raising the most. Lobbyists spend tens of millions every year trying to influence the work of Capitol Hill. Laws are developed in the dark. Citizens are shut out of the day-to-day process. The antidote to all that is transparency, and the Internet is in a stage where we have a unique opportunity to make it happen.

• I’m a big believer in the Justice Louis Brandeis quote “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

This article appears in the May 2008 issue of Washingtonian. To see more articles in this issue, click here.

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