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Project Sunlight: Access, Reform, Accountability

Naniette Coleman's picture

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

James Madison


Browsing bills, bill and veto jackets and state contracts is not exactly my idea of a good time but it has its use, just ask the people of the State of New York where is promoting access, reform and accountability in both English and Spanish.  Created largely by the Office of the Attorney General and Blair Horner, a leading advocate for government transparency who was on loan to the office from the New York Public Interest Research Group, is an innovative approach to keeping the public engaged in government. An approach that’s seems to have no equal in the US. 


According to the Office of the New York State Attorney General, where the website is housed, SunlightNY “promotes your right to know and monitor government decision-making. The website – the first of its kind in New York State - offers a new prototype for how government should make information available in today’s “digital democracy.” The website promotes transparency in government by making easily accessible information about individual elected officials, campaign finance activities, legislation, lobbyists, state contracts, and registered corporations and charities. You may perform advanced searches and examine seven different datasets or follow simple search options to explore governmental information. The website also offers educational videos and materials to inform you about the basic laws governing official conduct as well as an instructional video on how to use the website.” The nuance that I found most intriguing is how the user can filter information to meet their needs.  


Although similar websites exist on both the State and Federal level dedicated to transparency, many surround the issue of spending only, for example:


              Provides the public with information about how their tax dollars are spent

              Provides the public with information about how their tax dollars are spent

              Provides the public with information about how their tax dollars are spent

              Provides data related to Recovery Act spending


In addition to spending, Project Sunlight includes information on state elected officials, member items, lobbyists, campaign finance, state corporations, charities, local elected official’s maps and local governments by county, bills, bill and veto jackets, and state contracts. To date, the site houses information in excess of 48,000 individual contracts, 28,000+ individual campaign finance hits, 11,000+ lobbyists, 485,000+ state corporations and 67,000+ charities. With so much information in such an accessible format, the website could lead to more educated discussions by parties who have a stake in the Government. 


For reform minded individuals and organizations in the developing world, which are building or rebuilding systems from the ground up, having in mind innovative practices from around the World might help you down the road. Innovations are a great starting off point to help with brainstorming. Perhaps putting up a website as comprehensive as Project Sunlight’s is not in the immediate future but the ideas behind it, using technology to educate the population, might be.  The staff at Project Sunlight regularly meet with representatives from both the private and public sector about their work.  Consider giving them a call.  If not a website and if not this exact approach maybe consider how cell phones, sms, Bluetooth, and Twitter technology could be used to get you one-step closer to your transparency ends. The inspiration and interim steps might seem less important than where you land in the end, but each step gets you closer.