Ellen Miller, Executive Director, Sunlight Foundation
(image by Sunlight Foundation) DMCA
R. K.: Welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township between metro Philly and South Jersey sponsored by OpEdnews.com. My guest tonight is Ellen Miller, she's the executive director and co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation. Wikipedia says she's a political activist and advocate for open government to promote the use of technology to increase transparency in government, and she co-founded both the non-profit 501-C3 Sunlight Foundation and its sister political organization, Sunlight Network.
She's held several staff-level positions in the US Government including House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, and Senate Intelligence Committee. She's been listed among the most influential women in technology by FAST Company, and among the 15 People the Next President Should Listen to by "Wired Magazine." She stopped counting after creating eighteen tools and websites a year and a half into the Sunlight Foundation. I cannot imagine how many there are now. It has become an incredible enterprise. I've had a chance to have some contact and work a bit with Ellen Miller over the years and I'm really pleased to have you on the show, thank you.
E.M.: Well I am delighted to be here, Rob
R. K.: So the reason I wanted to have you on, first of all I think your work is extremely important and essential to the future of democracy and really of America, the way most people think about it. I call my show the Bottom Up Radio Show because I believe we are in a transition from a top-down to a bottom-up world and I have come to realize that transparency is an essential ingredient in people being able to take bottom-up power.
So I have a couple of questions for you -
R. K.: - that I will kind of throw at you and you can start the conversation with some basics. How are transparency and power connected? How is secrecy used as a weapon, as a strategy? What's the relationship between secrecy and democracy?
You said connections between us are what are so critically important and how does that tie in with transparency; and the basic questions: what is transparency and why is it important? You said it is for making democracy better and opening up closed societies, I want to get in to the details. And then what is the Sunlight Foundation, what is the Sunlight Network, and what is transparency camp? That's good enough for....
E.M.: Well, let's take them from the top. I will be glad to try to talk about all of those things but they are all big topics so what should we address first?
R. K.: Okay, so my real goal is to give you a chance to showcase a bit about Sunlight Foundation but I want to get some big picture questions taken care of. How are transparency and power connected?
E.M.: It is a really, really good question and I am delighted to start the interview that way. You know, Sunlight took it's name from Justice Brandeiss's very famous quote that Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," and so in any society, anywhere around the world where information, data, access to process is kept secret, there is always the potential for corruption. There's always a place, it always becomes a place where the powerful makes decisions out of the watchful eye of the public and so the clear relationship between opaqueness - which I would say is the opposite of transparency - and power is, you know, the powerful like that opaqueness, they don't like doing their business in the light of day.
Therefore, the more open we make government and it's work and the data it collects, the more powerful citizens become because we have access to information. You know, there is also the old adage, that information is power and that is very much at the heart of Sunlight's world. We are really interested in accountability of government and it's officials and we use technology as a way to pry open that information and make it accessible to journalists and make it accessible to the average online active citizen, to people who are going to vote and need information, and the reason we do this is because we don't want this information behind closed doors or locked in file cabinets, for people, because they can't get it. They can't get it on the web, they can't get it on their mobile devices.
R. K.: Now, you have become probably the leading institution in the world for developing technology to enable transparency and access to open government information. I want to kind of go in a slightly different direction and we are going to get in to that. How do you work to promote transparency as a value because it seems to me that if you're going to get government people and people in general to demand it and want it and create it, you have to have the demand for it. So how do you get that, have you looked at it as a value and what are the dimensions of it as a value?
E.M.: The answer to that is very early on in Sunlight's history, in fact it might have been right around our launch which was just a little over seven years ago, we did some polling and we asked people what they thought about the necessity for open-information about the US Congress specifically. It was a bi-partisan poll, it was done by bi-partisan polsters, and every question we asked, "would you like to have this information or that information", received an 80% support level. So, I think the value of transparency, the value of seeing behind the closed doors and the congress or in the government, at any level, is already of value in the United States and so the challenge is to create a cultural transformation inside government. A government which generally holds information closely, to create the transformation that we think is actually coming where the default is openness and open data and open access to process rather than a closed one and we see tremendous changes in that regard. The public is already with us, they get it. They know if they cannot see something they are very skeptical about what is going on behind closed doors or what is being kept in file cabinets so they are with us. The challenge is really to get government to do something that it is really not so interested in. A great example of this, Rob is if you think about the Freedom of Information Act, FoIA we call it. That has been a terrific law and when it was passed, what it really said was, "if you citizens want something, you have the right to ask government to provide it to you." In the twenty first century, that's ridiculous. Government by default should be open and we should not have to ask, to put the burden of openness on the citizen to request it, government should simply be open! We shouldn't have to need a FoIA, because government should proactively put out the information that can be made publicly available.
R. K.: How about this history of secrecy and transparency? I always liked to look at Humanity from the big picture; going back to indigenous tribal culture and secrecy in early history, mythic and archetypal aspects of secrecy and transparency. The Founders... Are there stories? Are there myths? Do we have deep history that gives us perspective on this that we can look to?
E.M.: I don't really know the answer to that question, but I think the answer would be quite simple: it is that power resides in the information and so those who are in power want to hold it close and those who are out of power want it open so they have more access to decisions and to participating in decisions and the understanding how decisions were made. I do not know that there is anything much greater than that in the history, you know? There is a natural tendency among those who are empowered to want to stay in power. They know that controlling the flow of information is absolutely one way to do that and so that has been the default of most governments.