Want Change? Sunlight Foundation Director, Ellen Miller, Shares How It’s Done in DC

Sunlight Foundation director, Ellen Miller speaks with Brian Park at Startup Grind DC on April 21, 2014.

Sunlight Foundation Executive Director, Ellen Miller speaks with Brian Park at Startup Grind DC on April 21, 2014.

Who can manage without measuring?  Who can lead without direction?  How can we fix the government without access to good, open government data?

Startup Grind DC featured guest, Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, has dedicated her career to public interest organizations that work closely with the highest levels of U.S. government.  The former publisher of online progressive journal, TomPaine.org, a serial public interest organization founder and a believer that up-to-date, reasonably accurate data is needed to hold the U.S. government accountable for its actions.

Good information tells its own story.  It’s what gets project managers, citizens and journalists started on investigative reporting activities in areas that seem to warrant attention.  Making available the right information to the public gives people a voice and helps keep our democracy on track.

“Everyone is aware of the power of open data,” says Ben Reich, co-founder of datasembly.com, a startup dedicated to “unlocking the power of social data” by getting past the meta-level to link more  actual content.  That takes a ton of automated indexing.

Ben had come to Startup Grind DC when he’d heard about the Sunlight Foundation’s mission for greater government data transparency.  Ben and his co-founder Dan Gallagher have spent years working at big data software/business analytics sites and say they are out to unlock the power of social data.  Making information more readily searchable increases the opportunity to discover information that previously seemed unrelated information. “People are struggling to find open data sets and correlate them effectively,” he observes.  As this relates to accountable government, good data tells its own story, what’s going well, what’s not and – here’s the part Ellen Miller is keen on — what political money buys, specifically.

It’s a small town.  And so is Louisville.

Ellen is from a conservative family.  She’s a mix of her roots in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised on good and civil conversation.  Capitol Hill culture and the art of political persuasion came later.  Ellen is comfortable speaking on her feet.  It’s plain to see she has spent time in the halls of power.

Sunlight’s Open Data Challenge

Sunlight’s Silicon Valley-based adviser, Esther Dyson, summed up Sunlight’s challenges as twofold:

First, to make the government do what it doesn’t want to do – information is power.

Second, to engage citizens who have become cynical.

History is made up of things that changed because people set their minds to changing them.  And, as AOL founder, DC political presence, Steve Case likes to point out, American itself was a startup.

She’s one of those people who will lead a discussion with the phrase, “I’ll tell you an interesting story.”  Fortunately, she’s got a ton.  Ellen is part of a breed of progressive, yet personally conservative, Washington careerists steeped in 1960’s political activism.

The Sunlight Foundation story

Starting Sunlight Foundation wasn’t in her long-term plan.  She started work as a 22-year old intern working for Ralph Nader at $50 per week.  She wasn’t thrilled with how he treated the people who worked hard for him.  It was a good nudge for her to create her own environment that supported exploring and testing a series of new project ideas.

Public interest work, people skills, Capitol Hill know-how, intelligence and a sense of fairness made Ellen Miller a good candidate to lead a foundation. She’d worked in DC since graduating from college in the public interest space and had the opportunity to run two public interest organizations.  As founding director for the Center for Responsive Politics for about 14 years (1983-1997) she is exceptionally proud of the organization’s creating OpenSecrets.org, the premiere organization for crunching numbers about money and politics.  The relationship between money and politics was eye opening.  She also founded the Public Campaign, an advocacy group for public financing of elections.

She was happily serving as publisher for a progressive online publication, TomPaine.com when she was approached by Washington DC lawyer and philanthropist, Mike Klein, to discuss it over lunch.

Disinfecting with Sunlight

“The first thing Mike said to me was ‘I am in the giveback phase of my career.  I think Washington, DC, is full of corrupt politicians and corrupt systems and what can be done about it?’” Then, he tossed out an idea to incentivize reporting around political corruption and its impact at the state and federal level.  If you were making a biopic, you’d include the scene of him beginning to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a Louisville native.  “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…” with her jumping in “and I can finish that quote, ‘electric light the most efficient policeman.’”

Mike ended up providing $3.5 million of seed funding for a foundation to keep the relationship between money and politics transparent and thereby uncover or deter political impropriety and corruption.

Jumping in

We talked to a lot of people who were doing political reporting.  They said, let’s take it to the most basic level.  If data on political finance and lobbying and what they get from that – government grants, contracts, positions, advisory committees, whether anyone had been sanctioned by the EPA and on and on …  if that information were more accessible, we could certainly convince our editors we had a story.

“The original vision for the Sunlight Foundation was to create a data commons with all kinds of information that tells the story of Washington, every state capital and city,” Ellen says.  “Our job is not to spin the data, it’s to let the data tell the story,” she explains.  “If you can’t connect the dots with facts then you don’t have a story” she observes, adding “– you don’t have a data-filled story – you just have conjecture.”

Ellen was inspired by speaking with friends at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City.  “They had been studying the relationship of technology and politics,” Ellen explains.  “Mike Klein and I were more interested in technology and governance.  She hired a team to create, test and keep projects that support their mission to shed light on the role of money, lobbying, politics and what it buys.

Early wins

In the early days, Sunlight gave out a number of relatively large grants, one was $320K for OMB Watch to build the first publicly accessible database on government spending.  It took about 4-5 months for the organization now known as the Center for Effective Government to get it running.  “Within a couple of months of the database going live, the Coburn/Obama bill mandating that the federal government create a publicly available database passed,” says Ellen adding, “ – long story about getting it passed which I don’t need to go into — and OMB purchased the license from the nonprofit to set up the first version of USASpending.gov.  When that happened, a light bulb went off in my head and I said, wait a minute, it is not our responsibility to create data bases out of government information.  It’s government’s responsibility.  And, I hired a policy director, and said we have to make this happen.  We’ll never have enough money to put everything required into place.”

Currently, Ellen says, apps and tools are just a bonus.  The data Sunlight is serving is the most important thing it does — Its APIs are used over 1 billion times.

Of the 3-4 dozen tools created and many killed, several stand out:

  • Open states, a community-based project with 100K – 110K users a month.  Volunteer developers scrape their state legislative sites to be put into a common data format so you don’t have to.  The public can search legislation across the horizon.  So, when you’re looking at stand by our gun legislation you can see how many other states have introduced that legislation and whether word for word or phrase for phrase.
  • Open Congress, a websitebuilt jointly with the Participatory Politics Foundation.  Sunlight has since taken over Open Congress, which has over 125K+ visitors a month.  The popular Congress app, meanwhile, which allows users to track legislators and bills from their smartphone, has been downloaded more than 100K times.
  • Scout, a fantastic app for people following public policy in some direction that scrapes congressional record, Congress and half a dozen other sources and bring concerns to light.

Not all apps bear discussing.  Politwopps, built in May 2012 collects deleted tweets by U.S. politicians.  “I’d rather not share them,” Ellen says. “Some of the things we found deleted are just cringe-worthy.”

Know someone who would be an amazing Sunlight Foundation director?  Now’s not the time to stop tussling with the current administration about $1.3 trillion in errors found in USASpending.gov.

Ellen looks forward to easing in the new director as she transitions out at the end of 2014. “Our work has been catalytic, but has yet to be fulfilled,” she says.

Running an organization takes vision, fundraising and management skills.  Will you lead a movement for government accountability?  Get introduced to innovators in the public interest community.  Attend TransparencyCamp, an organized “unconference.”

Code for America came out of a Transparency Camp.  “We gave them their first $10,000,” says Ellen.


About Janice K. Mandel

I'm a storyteller engaged in the evolving voice tech community. Early adopter experience in New York City included: Sr. Editor, EIC/Intelligence, the first online, commercial database (1980s); Communications/Voice of Equinta.com, like Zillow but in 1999; and Reach networks -- like Mosaic, only four years sooner. I've recruited speakers for VOICE Summit (https://voicesummit.ai) and contributed regularly to its "flashbriefing" on Alexa leading up to the event.
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