The Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich

Interviewed by Nancy Scola on April 14, 2008
 

[Photo credit: Jake Brewer]

John Wonderlich is the Program Director for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington DC-based organization that applies a “let’s throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach to using technology to make government more transparent and accountable. Sunlight is best known for projects like the Punch Clock Campaign, an effort to convince Members of Congress to post their daily schedules online, and Public Markup, a recently-launched experiment on collaboratively edited legislation. John, a former sales manager in Pennsylvania, came to his job at Sunlight via an unusual route. His dogged blogging on Daily Kos in the wake of the 2006 Democratic sweep of the House and Senate caught the attention of some on Capitol Hill, which in turn caught the attention of Sunlight. Now settled in Washington, John heads up the Open House Project, an attempt to drag Capitol Hill into the 21st century. John spends his days explaining how setting information free is the key to saving our democracy.

Can you explain for those of us not in working in the transparency world what the reforms are you’re working towards?

We’re looking for permanent links to bills, RSS feeds, better searches, and data-level access (APIs) so technologists designing sites like GovTrack.us or OpenCongress.org can do creative things with congressional info.

Each chapter of the Open House Project report examines a different specific congressional reform, and a few others have come up since then as priorities too. THOMAS, for example, is the Library of Congress’s site where bills and legislative information is put online. It was new in 1995, but fails to live up to its potential now. We’re looking for permanent links to bills (the links expire), RSS feeds, better searches, and data-level access (APIs [application programming interfaces]) so technologists designing sites like GovTrack.us or OpenCongress.org can do creative things with congressional info.

Committee information is an entire section of reforms, growing out of the work on Daily Kos, aimed at allowing people to really use committees as information sources.

Let’s back up and start at the beginning, in particular because I think it’s a great story about the power of the Internet. How did you get started in the business of making government more transparent through technology?

I have the impression that this is sort of an unusual story, but somewhat emblematic of what I take my work to be about.

I was a long-time reader of Daily Kos, and much more heavily involved, and personally invested in what was happening online, in the run-up to the 2006 election. I started writing diaries, commenting profusely, and volunteered for the Webb campaign, from Pennsylvania. I had worked for years telemarketing, so phonebanking came naturally to me, and they had a great call-from-home system set up, which I tried to evangelize on the site.

News coverage quickly switched to personality based analysis, and didn’t answer the question of what might change, or what powers came with the majority.

After the sweep, I was suddenly really interested in finding out more about what I felt I had helped to do–put the Democrats back into power. News coverage quickly switched to personality based analysis, and didn’t answer the question of what might change, or what powers came with the majority. In a diary on Daily Kos discussing caucus organization and committee chairs, someone suggested that citizens should keep track of what happens in committees, and I jumped on that idea. A community effort started on Daily Kos, and we split up and shared resources on the Daily Kos wiki, and set out to track committee proceedings from a progressive perspective — a real netroots experiment in distributed research.

We quickly realized that what it means to watch a committee online was undetermined, and we were operating in a rather new space, engaging with the workings of Congress solely through the Internet. By virtue of leading the group, I set out to see what resources might be available to committee watchers, and started reading the House rules, and checking into how committees and congressional resources are structured. This led to an essay I wrote on committee transcript availability. After reading the rules, I suggested that congressional committees should be required to post transcripts of their proceedings online. That was sort of my big break.

One of Speaker Pelosi’s staffers read what I wrote, and suggested that the Speaker was very interested in thinking about governance (this was a few weeks after the election), and that they’d love to see what the Internet community would like to see out of Congress. This led to the Open House Project.

Focusing on the fairly obscure House and Senate committees instead of the bold-faced names we see on TV seems like an interesting choice. Why go that route early on?

My focus on the substance of House rules really grew directly out of the enthusiasm of the community leading up to the 2006 election. Leading up to November, the House majority was in question, and winning the Senate was considered unlikely. When we won both, I felt like the work of the netroots was intensely relevant, and had great potential — like the election was just a necessary first step.

When the narrative switched away from things that might have an effect, and turned back to personality, I got interested in how anonymous people working together online might influence power. The House and Senate rules were just a vehicle for connecting people to what actually happens in Congress, for bypassing the media.

At this point, you’re still working a day job in Pennsylvania, right?

This whole time I’m working as a sales manager at a telemarketing company, ducking off the sales floor to write emails and read about legislative support agencies.

Yeah, that’s sort of the funny part about this for me — this whole time I’m working as a sales manager at a telemarketing company, ducking off the sales floor to write emails and read about legislative support agencies.

What were you finding was the state of congressional info online at that point? Very disappointing, or just not great?

Some things were better than I expected (like all current bills being on THOMAS), and some things were really disappointing, like committee transcripts being almost completely unavailable.

There’s really no single person in charge of congressional information, because authority of the institution is naturally splintered. OMB [Office of Management and Budget] or the GSA [General Services Administration] can easily set standards across the executive branch (or throw them out, as the case may be), but in Congress, there’s a lot more negotiated terrain.

That can be a good thing though. That’s part of the reason that so many staffers have been attracted to what we’re doing. With no clear authority over many IT and transparency issues, an external dialog is can be really attractive.

At what point did you go from working on this stuff during the midnight hours to making it your full-time job?

In May of 2007, when we released the Open House Project report, I relocated to DC, and became Program Director for the Sunlight Foundation. One of my first days of work involved speaking at a press conference in the Capitol, which was a bit of a shock for me. I think I have a very unusual experience of Congress. As a (now) registered lobbyist, staffers (of both parties) often approach me to discuss their issues, out of a personal conviction and honest interest in what we’re doing.

My experience of Congress has been of an amazingly responsive institution.

How much a hunger was there on the staff level for more transparency, more accountability?

I’m working on a level that fits really well with congressional staff, and constantly encounter creative ideas and passion for open government. Aside from fitting with the broader goals of both parties, transparency can create some really useful alliances. I’ve found that new media staff, systems administrators, leadership offices, and legislative support staff all share an interest in the technology of Congress, and they’ve all become allies.

To play devil’s advocate, there does seem to be a resistance to some transparency efforts, at least at the level of the Members of Congress. I’m thinking of the Punch Clock Campaign.

Some slowness in adjusting just makes sense to me.

Absolutely. There are some initiatives that have meet with more resistance. Posting member schedules is a much bigger request. Some common sense moves, like electronic disclosure of campaign finance (so they’re public before the election) have also been blocked. I see what we’re doing as a process.

Technology is really driving it, though — even the Congressional Record didn’t exist until stenography, so some slowness in adjusting just makes sense to me. I have the luxury of working on the very practical aspects of Congress, though.

It seems like it’s a matter of making the ways of Congress more in sync with what technology makes possible…

I see technology as enabling /agency/, most fundamentally. So members, and staff are enabled as agents through information, and citizens gain agency as more than voters.

With 435 Members of Congress and dozens of congressional committees churning away day in and day out, there’s ends up being an awful lot of data produced on Capitol Hill. Do you ever worry about swamping people in disconnected bits of information?

I’m shocked at how disconnected experts are from the governmental agencies with relevant jurisdiction.

I think we’re in the swamp now. :) I think of “news” as little more than entertainment, a faux civic identity, literally the sharing of the novel and flashy. So the disconnected bits of information, like committee information, or proposed federal regulations, or executive orders, or GAO reports — they’re all relevant to different pursuits. I’m shocked at how disconnected experts are from the governmental agencies with relevant jurisdiction.

I see the Internet as connecting experts to the work of government, and as helping to reinvent what civil society might entail.

How do you mean that experts are disconnected from agencies? Can you give an example?

We have two main groups of intermediaries between citizens and legislators — lobbyists and interest groups. Neither one does a particularly good job of tapping into the distributed expertise of the country. So, for example, why isn’t the academic world connected with the policy work relevant to their field? Why aren’t physical chemistry professors attached to the work of the Energy Committee? We track sports with amazing up-to-the-second stats, analysis, and visualizations, while the work of creating policy goes comparatively unnoticed.

Good question. So, what’s the answer — why aren’t they?

Giving citizens relevant and timely information means that we recognize them as agents.

I think a big part of it is that Congress can be confusing, and because the way we share information about it is built from the tradition of favoring monied interests over expert interests. Even representative government grew from equating money or land with having a stake in governance.

I think giving citizens relevant and timely information means that we recognize them as agents.

That’s what makes pushing for standardized data formats and building APIs political, isn’t it? If you’re redistributing power to the people, you’re taking it away from someone, no? Aren’t those people who are now less powerful going to be upset?

Making “public” into “usefully public” has the most explosive potential, and is the hardest to argue against.

Most of these technical reforms, taken alone, are really difficult to argue against, and both parties see information as ideologically useful. Senator Lieberman remarked about publishing Senate votes in XML, something like, ‘it’s tempting to not give access to what we’re doing, really it is, but it’s just not right, we want people to see what we’re doing.’ There’s really no counterargument against that.

Most of the lines between public and confidential are well established (with a few notable exceptions). Making “public” into “usefully public” has the most explosive potential, and is the hardest to argue against.

On that point about committee websites, during General Petraeus’s testimony the other day, I found myself on the Senate Armed Services Committee site. That thing is horrible. It looks straight out of a movie from 1994. I mean, it features tiny animated flags. Just throwing that out there. :)

Committee sites are a fun example (that I know you’re familiar with, to say the least). [Ed. – I spend some time working for what was then the House Committee on Government Reform.] They really reflect the independence that committee chairs have — only accountable to loosely enforced House and Senate rules.

And allergic to being told what to do, I might suggest. Where you have a non-partisan but leadership-appointed Sergeant at Arms in the Senate or House Information Resources on the other side, how do you get any consistency in information? Is Minority Leader Boehner all that open to standardized data formats that an administrator appointed to Speaker Pelosi imposes?

There’s probably a tipping point involved, where … not offering the information would come across as something like incompetence. We’re pretty far from that now, though.

I’ve had good experiences with Boehner’s and Pelosi’s staff, both. I think that movement in committee information will result from chairs recognizing their websites as messaging tools, and that citizen attention is useful for their work.

There’s also probably a tipping point involved, where the expectation is just there, and not offering the information would come across as something like incompetence. We’re pretty far from that now, though.

Implementing many of the data formats is well in progress, too. They’ve been working on XML throughout Congress for several years, and that work will probably continue for several more.

Do you run into areas where a technical challenge keeps you from doing what you want to do — meaning, you have a vision for some specific reform, but haven’t been able to work out how to program it?

Ideally, committee video should be available as a live stream, as an embeddable video, and in raw archived format.

I haven’t encountered that yet, although that’s largely because I have the experts in the Sunlight labs to rely on for technological counsel.

Although one place without clear standards would be congressional video. There aren’t best practices yet — they’re still being developed. Ideally, committee video should be available as a live stream, as an embeddable video, and in raw archived format. How that might work technically, and in what format — that’s a long way to being settled. Many committees still aren’t wired for video.

Increased demand might help too — I went to a leg branch approps hearing on the GAO yesterday, and I think I was the only non-staffer there. That makes it hard to prioritize video expenditures.

How many Members of Congress showed up?

About five. Which again makes the point that the others, if they had pressing things to do, should be able to review a video of what happened.

Coming in with the goal of increasing the access of “we the people” to government information, what have you found “easy” to accomplish? What have you found surprisingly difficult?

I’m part blogger, part lobbyist, part organizer, and part researcher — there’s no clear set of standards about what to do. That makes my work really exciting, but also pretty intense.

I’m amazed at the support of various communities — staffers, technologists, Members, bloggers, the non-profit community. Building a coalition and finding expertise has been easy. The hardest part for me has been finding my way through a very non-traditional advocacy space. I’m part blogger, part lobbyist, part organizer, and part researcher — there’s no clear set of standards about what to do. That makes my work really exciting, but also pretty intense.

Hashing out standard data formats isn’t exactly storming Parliament. Do you run into people in DC or in the outside transparency community who don’t quite get the importance of what you’re aiming to do?

Yeah, it’s not always the most obvious thing to explain. People understand that the Internet is changing things though, so it isn’t too much of a threat. I really like the comparison to shopping. That’s one experience that changed so comfortably online that makes a great comparison for politics.

Do you take any inspiration from something like OpenSocial, the standard that Google/MySpace/etc. are hoping to develop for social networking applications?

[OpenSocial is] a great example of unusual collaboration coming out of a new context, where recognizing a shared stake in something’s success leads to people acting outside their normal roles.

Totally — I think that’s a great example. Google’s acting a little more like a community member than a large company, probably to the other companies’ relief. That’s a great example of unusual collaboration coming out of a new context, where recognizing a shared stake in something’s success leads to people acting outside their normal roles.

Okay, a couple quick ones: where did you come down on the recent battle over John Boehner’s earmarkreform.house.gov?

Happy it blew over? :) My main reaction: I think the initial confusion reflects an overall lack of guidance for web use standards. The rules, as stated though, are clear enough, and it can easily be moved to a subdomain within the Minority Leader’s site, so I think there may have been some hope of drawing attention to the earmark fight.

That’s a risk though, that technical issues get dragged into separate political battles whenever convenient; and really speaks to the need for clear standards.

One of the complaints that you hear online about Congress is that the Congressional Research Service refuses to release the reports they prepare for member offices. I think CRS’s defense can be summed up as ‘we can’t provide the same unvarnished information if we know the public will read it.’ Why is that a bogus argument?

The GAO [Government Accountability Office] and CBO [Congressional Budget Office] both release their reports, and go so far as to publish an RSS feed of new reports, to encourage the public to read them. They’re both totally successful in their work. Also, the reports are FOR SALE to the public. Congress has already lost control of them, publishing the reports themselves would result in greater control, not a loss.

What do you make of the current controversy over Legistorm, where the financial disclosures of some congressional staffers have been posted in an accessible way online?

I empathize with both sides; staffers feel vulnerable, and Legistorm is only publishing public documents. My solution is for the GAO to audit the Personal Financial Disclosure program as a whole, as required by law (which they haven’t done since the early 90s.) It’s time to clarify how the process works, and to make the procedures clearer. GAO is supposed to be keeping watch over how well it functions.

When the ethics in government act was passed, the GAO was directed to periodically review how effectively the requirements were being implemented. That’s when executive, judicial, and legislative branch employees over a certain pay grade were required to post their personal financial disclosure forms. There’s a lot of unclear directions, and misunderstandings and frustration will only grow, unless some updated standards are offered. GAO is supposed to review this (like they are required to look into many other things), but they haven’t. I generally love the GAO, but have to take them to task for this oversight oversight. (ha.)

Is this a case where there is a limited usefulness to data that could harm people, and that posting it for all the world to see is going too far?

These laws were written when “public” meant in a file folder, available when requested. It means something different now.

I’m not sure. That’s a good question. Someone should determine whether, in a digital context, it’s ok to post the image of staffers signatures, or home addresses (or whatever). I don’t know where the line is. There needs to be some accountability, to avoid conflicts of interest, and to encourage real oversight. Some body needs to determine what the line is for appropriate government employee privacy in a disclosure form context, and then update the forms’ directions and the laws to reflect that. These laws were written when “public” meant in a file folder, available when requested. It means something different now, with different implications.

I noticed a post of yours on the Open House Project Blog that contained the line “Does the pedestal of celebrity hurt governance?” What did you mean by that?

I think news coverage is weird. It strikes me as like mythology, or maybe as projecting drama onto something that should be more substantive. Why are the writers of laws so compelling to people? At the same time, the celebrity aspect of politicians is really really American, and is probably a very human thing. I guess my question asks whether this is desirable. Would we be happier with good policy coming from boring administrators?

I’m curious — how does how your understanding of Washington DC now that you’re part of it compare to how you saw it when you were running around on that sales floor all day and posting away on Daily Kos all night?

My image of influence and power here is still incomplete. I recognize that I have a very unusual view of the city — my first experience in the Capitol was from a podium. I see Congress and government as really vulnerable, sort of pre-adolescent in its relationship to the rest of the country.