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Open meetings need open data

open door

Open meetings laws are an essential element of open government. Ensuring public access to government decision-making processes can help create transparency, allow for accountability, and encourage public participation in the choices being made on the public’s behalf.

For open meetings laws to live up to their full potential, they need to reflect the opportunities provided by recent advances in technology. Governments are already starting to update public records laws to take advantage of these kinds of advances, and open meetings laws are overdue for undergoing similar revisions.

Open meetings generate an abundance of public records, including agendas, minutes, votes, and more. Sharing these records online as open data is becoming increasingly easy and financially feasible. This opportunity is often missed by local governments, but that’s starting to change. States, counties, cities and towns across the country are finding ways to use open data to bolster open meetings, sharing information online about decision-making processes in easily accessible and reusable formats. Open data is helping in ways beyond making information more easily accessible, too. It’s also inviting the public to participate in the decision-making process in new ways — a key component of any open government initiative.

Recommendations for using open data to improve open meetings

Just as the public records process is being updated to take advantage of new technologies, it’s time for an overhaul of how governments approach open meetings. Some of the key principles of open data can be applied to broad improvements of open meetings policies. Here are some of the ways open data can be used to help bolster open meetings:

1. Post the open meetings law online

Open meetings laws are public accountability and access policies, and as such it makes sense to post these laws online where anyone can easily review their rights to access government. Posting these laws online also demonstrates that open meetings are part of the values, goals and mission of the government for keeping the public informed and engaged.

2. Post meeting notices, agendas, minutes, votes and other related documents online

Governments should proactively post meeting notices, agendas, minutes, votes, and other documents generated by open meetings online in a timely manner. All of this information should be machine-readable, making it easily accessible, searchable, and reusable.

Information should also be provided in varied formats where appropriate to help better serve the different kinds of users looking to work with the information. It may make sense to provide votes, for example, as structured data so the information can easily feed into an app that alerts users about the outcomes, while other users may want a simple HTML list of the votes. Posting the information online in various formats creates a variety of ways for people to reuse it.

3. Record and post audio or video of full meetings online

As the price of audio and video recording and online hosting continues to decline, it’s increasingly feasible for governments to record their open meetings and post the recordings online. It’s important that these recordings be complete, not just fragments of meetings, to give an accurate picture of what happened. These recordings can also be a gateway to providing transcripts of meetings, with technology that can generate closed captioning.

4. Share information in a timely manner in a central location

All information from open meetings should be easily findable from a central location online, and the information should be timely and permanent. There should be no restrictions on access to the information, and it should be license-free to ensure anyone can reuse the information freely.

5. Publish information in bulk and consider APIs

All information from open meetings should be downloadable in bulk, which simply means anyone can download the whole set of information at once rather than downloading document by document or piece by piece. Governments could also create an API of the information to encourage its reuse in apps.

6. Take steps to ensure data quality

Taking steps to ensure data quality will help make names, bills, and other important pieces of information findable. Without controls for data quality, the searchability of information could be limited by variations. Several principles of open data can help ensure quality, including using metadata to help verify the authenticity of information by providing important context about its creation and uses. Mandating the use of unique identifiers for bills, council members, and events can help create accurate tracking of these entities, especially in instances where bills might have similar titles or council members might have similar names.  Requiring electronic filing of agenda items, votes, and other information generated from open meetings can help detect any inaccuracies with data entry and force data fields to be formatted the same way for quality control. Electronic filing is also useful because it can help make sure all of this information is in electronic format from the beginning, rather than being captured in a format that requires further processing to be useful once it’s posted online.

7. Mandate future review drawing on public input

Mandating future review of open meetings laws will help the law keep up with the new opportunities continually being offered by advances in technology. Open meetings policies and practices shouldn’t have to lag behind the times the way many of them do now. Governments should take suggestions for revisions and improvements from the public, and these comments should be given formal consideration in the revision process.

8. Apply the open meetings law to quasi-governmental agencies

Governments should look at applying open meetings laws to quasi-governmental agencies. The decisions made by these bodies can impact the public as much as decisions made by agencies that are explicitly government-operated, and the information pertaining to those meetings should be subject to the same public scrutiny. Exempting quasi-governmental agencies from open meetings laws can exclude the public from having access to context about decisions that impact their lives.

9. Create an online component for meetings

Open meetings are one of the oldest ways of involving the public in government decision-making. Typically, though, open meetings have meant having the public come to government-designated locations, at specific times, to attend meetings. Now, technology is allowing the public to attend and participate online as well. With webcasting, someone can watch an open meeting from wherever they choose, and with archiving of audio and video they can even catch up on the meeting after it’s over. This also helps accommodate people who have schedules that might not allow them to attend meetings otherwise.

Governments using webcasting or providing audio or video archives of their meetings should take advantage of the expanded opportunity to gather public input on the decision-making process. Those watching online live should be given an opportunity to submit comments for consideration just as those who attend are given an opportunity to speak to specific matters being discussed at the meeting. This will make it easier for the public to be actively involved in expressing a voice about how government operates.

10. Ensure sufficient funding

Governments must ensure the staff responsible for handling open meetings matters have sufficient funding to do all of this appropriately. Who these staff are and what their specific responsibilities are will vary from place to place, but looking at what new or expanded responsibilities could be involved with an upgrade of the open meetings law will ensure that the implementation can be carried out in a way that fulfills the goal of the policy change.

11. Digitize archival materials

Digitizing archival material including agendas, minutes, and other meetings-related documents that are not currently in electronic or searchable format can help provide historical context to decisions made in the past. Digitizing this material could even help with finding outdated policies or laws that should be eliminated or updated. (Finding these kinds of laws is an ongoing ritual in local governments across the country.


As more governments realize the benefits of proactively sharing information online, they should share information about open meetings as a key part of that initiative. It’s a common-sense move to strengthen one of the oldest public access and accountability measures.


The DISCLOSE Act and the First Amendment

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, reading a statement before the Senate Rules Committee on the DISCLOSE Act

Sen. Mitch McConnell argues Democrats are using campaign finance reform as a vehicle to silence their opponents; Image credit: Senate Rules and Administration Committee

In their second hearing on anonymous campaign spending since the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, members of the Senate Rules Committee sparred over the implications of the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that which would require political nonprofits that spend more than $10,000 in a federal election to electronically disclose their major donors. The few senators who spoke at the hearing — Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. were the only two left by the end — have all experienced the effect of dark money on elections, either directly or indirectly. But they have starkly different takes on what, if anything, Congress should do to reform the campaign system.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was for disclosure before he was against it. Though he fought the 2002 McCain-Feingold bill on grounds that it did not do enough for disclosure, he has been one of the DISCLOSE Act’s most outspoken opponents. In a brief statement from the dais, McConnell called DISCLOSE a “crude intimidation tactic [from Democrats] masquerading as good government,” citing recent scandals at federal agencies as evidence of a larger effort by the Obama administration to stem free speech.

McConnell knows the effects of shadow money as well as any senator. Currently engaged in a bitter election battle with Democrat Allison Lundergan Grimes, he’s been aided by nondisclosing groups like the “Kentucky Opportunity Coalition,” which has spent more than $3.3 million on online, radio and TV ads attacking Grimes. Organized as a “social welfare” nonprofit, the group is not required to name its benefactors. The same goes for other shadowy groups playing in the Kentucky Senate race, like the benignly named Patriot Majority USA — a liberal nonprofit that has devoted a quarter of a million dollars to trashing McConnell and millions more targeting conservative candidates across the country.

Heather Gerken, a Yale professor who specializes in election law, told the committee in testimony that increased transparency receives broad bipartisan support among the electorate. But Brad Smith, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, countered that the current campaign finance system had more regulations than ever before and that the DISCLOSE Act would have a chilling effect on political speech — subjecting large donors to public harassment and threats if they supported unpopular causes.

Both McConnell and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, drew analogies to the civil rights era, when donor rolls to the NAACP in the deep south were kept anonymous to protect their supporters. They also noted that the Socialist Workers Party of America continues to enjoy an exemption from reporting its donors by the Federal Election Commission for their safety.

It’s a familiar line of reasoning for supporters of more anonymity in political giving. Conservative elections lawyer and campaign treasurer Dan Backer, who argued for the winning side in the Supreme Court’s landmark McCutcheon v. FEC case, asked the commission in Nov. 2013 to grant an advisory opinion as to whether a similar exemption could be extended to the Tea Party Leadership Fund on the grounds that Tea Party supporters encountered “unprecedented harassment from both government officials and private actors.” Commissioners ultimately failed to grant the request in a 3-2 party line vote.

Cruz, veering into a discussion of another campaign finance bill — New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall’s proposed Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United — argued that Democratic sponsors were trampling the First Amendment in attempting to regulate the political speech of corporations.

Both sides of the debate agreed on one thing: dark money is not going anywhere soon.

“This is an important issue, it’s one that isn’t going to go away,” King said as he closed the hearing. “And I believe it’s going to continue to bedevil us for sometime unless we can some find resolution.”

As of publication non-disclosing groups have spent at least $33 million on federal races in the 2014 cycle, data from Real-Time Influence Explorer shows.


Helsinki Aims to Be Car-free by 2025

The Guardian‘s excellent environmental coverage has been supplemented by a new section on cities, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. Here, we learn about an ambitious plan in Helsinki, Finland, to create a revolutionary “mobility on demand” system by 2025. The system would enable all “shared and public transport” to be paid for with a single […] [...]

New Survey: What Makes a City Great?

A new survey commissioned by planning and design firm Sasaki Associates asked 1,000 urbanites in San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. what they love most about their city. The findings, which cover diverse aspects of city life, offer truly fascinating insights for urban planners, landscape architects, and architects. One example: 60 […] [...]

New Survey: What Makes a City Great?

A new survey commissioned by planning and design firm Sasaki Associates asked 1,000 urbanites in San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. what they love most about their city. The findings, which cover diverse aspects of city life, offer truly fascinating insights for urban planners, landscape architects, and architects. One example: 60 […] [...]

Today in #OpenGov 7/23/14

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis, including divergent super PAC strategies for Democrats and Republicans in 2014, arrests of police officers on a corruption investigation in Turkey, and plenty of state and local news.

A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • Democratic Party leadership has largely excluded independent super PACs from its 2014 strategy. Whereas the Dems have chosen to funnel campaign funds to individual candidates through the aspirationally-named Senate Majority PAC, the Republicans have allowed a much wider pool of PACs to flourish. (National Journal)
  • The Federal Communications Commission received a record-breaking 1 million comments on its proposed net neutrality rules in the five-month comment period that ended on Friday. Historical analysis shows, however, that large comment volume ultimately has little to do with rulemaking outcome, and industry comments still have substantial sway over the process. (NPR)
  • As the President and First Lady head into yet another week of star-studded fundraisers, the Washington Post takes a look at the history of celebrity-assisted fundraising efforts through the ages. Hobnobbing with Hollywood has long been a Beltway pastime, and the lucrative nature of these relationships makes their disappearance unlikely. (Washington Post)
  • Proposed defense budget cuts would close the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) at the National Defense University (NDU) by the end of the year. The CRRC holds many internal records from al-Qaeda and from Saddam Hussein’s regime, and its closure would transfer record holdings to the National Archives and Records Administration, which does not plan to release the documents for another twenty-five years. (Foreign Policy)

International News

  • Turkey detained more than sixty of its police officers for spying on senior government officials. The arrests targeted security chiefs involved in a corruption probe concerning cases of bribery in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cabinet, and come about a month before Turkey’s first direct presidential elections, a race that Erdogan is favored to win. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Jakarta governor Joko Widodo was named the winner in Indonesia’s much-contested presidential election. Widodo’s opponent, retired army general Prabowo Subianto, withdrew from the contest while continuing to claim that the elections had been rigged. (New York Times)
  • The British government is drawing criticism over its appointment of Sir Philip Dilley to head the country’s Environmental Agency. Dilley, a business advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron, has extensive ties to corporations interested in opening Britain’s shale gas resources to hydraulic fracturing. (The Guardian)

State and Local News

  • The United States Supreme Court denied a request for a stay of execution for Arizona’s death-row inmate Joseph Wood. Wood’s lawyers had filed for a preliminary injunction, arguing that the state should disclose the qualifications of the executioners and origins of the drugs to be used in the execution. Wood will be executed on Wednesday morning. (AZ Central)
  • Embattled Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has elected to sidestep the Democratic Party’s troubled state party apparatus in her re-election bid this year, preferring instead to work with the Democratic Party of Wake County. (New York Times)
  • Delaware governor Jack Markell signed a suite of eight campaign finance reform bills into law yesterday. While the legislation instituted campaign whistleblower protections and online lobbying disclosures, the bills fell short of the needed changes to combat what some have called a “pay-to-play” political culture. (Delaware Online)

Events Today

Events Tomorrow

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 


Herzog & de Meuron’s Gorgeous Ecological Swimming Pool

The people of Riehen, a small city near Basel in Switzerland, have long wanted a new public swimming pool to replace their “obsolescent baths” by the River Wiese. In the late 1970s, the city government even launched a design competition. Unfortunately, the initial vision was never unrealized, but, just a few years ago, the Swiss architecture […] [...]

Reliable data in Indonesian national elections stops at campaign finance

Photo of newly elected Indonesian president, Joko Widodo.
Photo of newly election Indonesian president, Joko Widodo. Image Credit: Flickr Commons

For the second time this year, Indonesian citizens went to the polls for a national election; this time, to choose the country’s next president. In some respects, the Indonesian government is incredibly transparent about elections. The General Election Commission releases extensive amounts of data on voting demographics and counting results that can help hush accusations of corruption. Unfortunately, a level of transparency that empowers accountability does not extend to political finance regulation. Data revealing how and by whom citizens’ votes might be influenced is neither timely nor reliable.

In a mere 15 years, Indonesia has gone from being a dictatorship to the world’s third-largest democracy. Vote counts indicate that the populist governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, will be taking office this fall — despite recent allegations of mass cheating by close contender, Prabowo Subianto. The ex-general, considered a symbol of the former regime, has now officially withdrawn. As a reform-minded official steps into the presidency, some believe this election marks an important step forward for this burgeoning democracy.

Yet there is more that can be done. For example, although campaign finance laws in Indonesia limit the amount of money that individuals and corporate entities can contribute to political parties — 1 billion rupiah ($85,910 U.S. dollars) annually for individuals and 7.5 billion rupiah ($646,830 U.S. dollars) annually for corporations — there are, unfortunately, many loopholes in the regulation. According to Global Integrity’s most recent scorecard, individuals and corporations can easily supersede limits by funneling donations through friends or relatives. Evidence from previous elections has shown that even when there are clear violations, penalties are not imposed.

While Indonesian regulations do require political parties and candidates to report on funding sources (including donor information) and expenses in relation to a campaign, this attempt at transparency comes too late for the information to be relevant for voters when they go to the polls. Parties and national candidates report the identity of donors only after the campaign period ends and any data on campaign funding or expenses is still not released to the public until ten days after the General Election Commission has finished auditing the campaign. Further, the quality of the data to the public released online is of questionable accuracy, according to Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) in their investigation of questionable funding sources for political parties in 2011.

The lack of accessible data on campaign finance in Indonesia provides a sharp contrast to the availability of other types of election data released by the government and liberated by local CSOs. The General Election Commission’s data site includes extensive data on voting results that is available both in a searchable database and via an API. Perludem, an Indonesian good governance group working to maintain the integrity of elections, released their first open source Election API in time for the 2014 parliamentary election in April. It contains an impressive amount of information about all 7,500+ candidates from the recent election, including backgrounds, past employment and education. Alongside the API, the front end site that Perludem has created lets you browse the data on national candidates as well, so the API can not only be used to power applications by developers, but even non-developers can perform analyses on the 2014 candidates and candidates in years to come. Google even featured data from Perludem, in addition to presidential candidate information in the 2014 Google Election tool.

Perludem only recently launched this API, but they are continually adding data and functionality. The usability of the election data within this application exemplifies the benefit that open government data can have and provides an example for what could be accomplished if this amount of data was available on campaign finance.

Indonesia has taken some steps to make elections and the national government in general more transparent. The government has taken an active role in the Open Government Partnership, including hosting the Asia-Pacific Regional Open Government Partnership (OGP) conference in Nasu Dua, Bali earlier this year. Unfortunately, increasing the openness of campaign finance data isn’t currently on Indonesia’s priority list. Ethics groups, including Perludem, are speaking out against campaign finance regulation violations in connection with the 2014 parliamentary and presidential election, but it is unclear whether or not this will lead to better oversight or stronger disclosure laws. As a country with several anti-corruption groups working to open government data and an active member of OGP, there is evidence of Indonesia’s burgeoning role within the global open government movement — but there is still much room for improvement and a greater focus on the disclosure of campaign finance data could be made going forward. Until then, citizens of Indonesia will stay in the dark about who is trying to influence their vote.



Questions remain for Mayday PAC

Professor Lawrence Lessig, in black suit, delivering a talk at Stanford
Mayday PAC founder and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig speaking at Stanford University in 2008; Photo credit: Flickr user Robert Scoble

I won’t be asking you to DONATE NOW again and again. That bit is done. Instead, for the rest of this cycle, what you’ll hear from us is about how your campaign is working.

We’ve got lots of ideas about how to make this work. We’ll be testing them and improving them and building lots that’s new. But you’ve raised the money. It’s time to get down to work. So stay tuned.

With those words, Mayday PAC founder and campaign finance crusader Lawrence Lessig (who is also on the Sunlight Foundation’s Advisory Board) announced the group had met its July 4 deadline to raise $5 million, triggering an additional $5 million in contributions from wealthy donors who pledged matching funds if the PAC could raise the money by Independence Day.

That means the group detonated what appears to be an unprecedented money bomb. Consider: As of June 30, the day books closed on the second quarter and Mayday had collected $3.3 million, according to the campaign finance disclosure it filed 15 days later with the Federal Election Commission.

On July 4, in a message on the group’s website, Lessig announced the PAC had raised enough money to trigger an additional $5 million in matching funds. That appears to mean Mayday raked in $3.7 million in just four days. (See below for our calculations).

The committee has yet to disclose the sources behind this cash injection.

Legally, Mayday PAC can wait until Oct. 15 — less than three weeks before Election Day — to disclose those details; however, Jonathan Lipman, a spokesperson for Mayday PAC, told Sunlight that the committee “is working on methods for providing greater transparency in real time.” Meanwhile, the group has provided summary data on its website for donations before June 27.

The group’s founders want to stamp out corruption of the campaign finance system, starting with five races in the midterm elections. The goal is to elect candidates committed to campaign finance reform, regardless of party.

The PAC has yet to identify the five races in which it intends to use the money. Mayday’s Rachel Perkins told Sunlight in an email that Mayday’s board has been meeting since the 15th to discuss the selections.

From what we have seen in the group’s FEC report, Mayday has had some success in attracting small dollar contributions. Of the $2,091,015 in itemized contributions it received from April through June, $481,269.88 came from donors who gave less than $1,000 total. An additional $1.2 million came from donors who gave less than $200. None of the itemized money came from other PACs or corporations.

Even so, Mayday’s fundraising follows traditional patterns in other respects: Most of the group’s donations prior to June 30 came from just three ATM states (so called because they are where politicians go to withdraw money): California, Massachusetts and New York.

Mayday’s efforts to raise a $12 million war chest to help five as-yet unnamed supporters of campaign finance reform win elections this fall involves a complex series of transactions:

  • To get its first $2 million, Mayday had to raise $1 million from small donors. This was matched by six-figure donations from tech moguls listed in the group’s second quarter FEC filing. The matching funders included Chris Anderson of TED Conference fame and Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal.
  • The group set July 4 as the cutoff for raising an additional $5 million to be matched by another group of wealthy donors. Subtracting the $2 million accounted for above, the PAC was still $3.7 million short as of June 30. However a congratulatory message from Lessig posted on the group’s website declares that the PAC met its goal.
  • As of publication, Mayday PAC’s website reports it has raised nearly $7.7 million from 54,000 donors.

The PAC has yet to identify donors for the bulk of that haul.


Today in #OpenGov 7/22/2014

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis including new House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s generous donation influx from lobbyists and executives alike, a lack of transparency as Russian-backed militants continue to hamper analysis of the tragic crash of MH17, and a lobbying battle in Sacramento over popular ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.

A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • Louisiana Representative and incoming House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was the recent recipient of $150,000 in campaign donations late June, following the announcement of his new leadership role. His donors? Senior executives at Washington lobbying firms to committees representing the defense, financial, and medical industries. The money’s use? Recouping after his campaign for Whip, during which Scalise donated $30,000 to House Republican colleagues, including Cantor, and racked up bills in the $10,000 range at restaurants where he had dinner with his campaign team. (National Journal)
  • The K street lobbying shop Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld beat out the struggling Squire Patton Boggs in quarterly lobbying revenues, according to numbers released by both firms Monday. In 2014 Q2, Akin Gump reported $8.6 million in lobbying billings. (Politico)
  • In a New York Times Op-Ed, Sen. Chuck Schumer called for an end to the party primary system in elections, instead embracing California’s “top-two” primary system. He stated, “[A party primary] favors more ideologically pure candidates, [and] has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization. It has become a menace to governing.” (New York Times)

International News

  • Following the tragic crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, transparency is opaque as Russian-backed rebels continue to make access to the debris site difficult and hamper the collection and analysis of evidence. Only days after the crash did rebels turn over the plane’s black boxes to Malaysian investigators. (Washington Times)
  • An investigation by Free Tibet found that the Chinese Government uses over 100 fake Twitter accounts to spread misinformation about contested regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. The accounts portray these areas in a rosy light, compared to their true state as politically contentious and occasionally violent territories. (The Verge)
  • While the Canadian Parliament is recognized for efficient disclosure and freedom to information turnaround–with 50 percent of requests processed in 30 days or fewer–the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Environment Canada noticeably lagged in disclosure. Their information turnarounds averaged four months. (The Star)

State and Local News

  • While rideshare services like Uber and Lyft have powerfully impacted taxi and transport markets in cities nationwide, a lobbying battle over the services is taking hold in Sacramento, CA: insurance providers and consumers attorneys are lobbying state lawmakers to mandate rideshare services to buy the same insurance policies as taxis. (GovTech)
  • A decade after leaving office, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown registered with the city as a paid lobbyist. Brown signed up to represent high-rise developers battling City Hall over an extra $1 billion in special assessments they’re being asked to pay for new real estate developments in the city. (SF Gate)
  • The Massachusetts State Senate will debate a revised campaign finance bill that would force super PACs into the timely disclosure of contributors–an attempt by lawmakers to add transparency to the political process in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. A similar bill previously passed the State House in June. (WBUR)

Events Today

Events Tomorrow

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.