21st Century Crowbars Help Pry Open Government

Second in a two-part series.

The Obama administration is trying to usher in a new era of transparency in government — call it Government 2.0.

It has already set up a Web site where people can track how the hundreds of billions of dollars in the economic stimulus plan are being spent, and Obama promises that in the years to come, citizens will have much more access to information about what the government is doing.

The shift is also changing the way government watchdogs do their jobs.

Information At Your Fingertips

Clay Johnson is the 21st century version of the government watchdog. He is not hunkered down in a stuffy office, crunching data and releasing reports. As the director of Sunlight Labs, part of the Sunlight Foundation, Johnson focuses on technology — Web sites and applications that put government information in the hands of everyone.

Sunlight's most recent project, called Apps for America, was a contest for the best new Web application.

"The winner for both the contest and best name in the universe is an app called Filibusted, which is awesome," Johnson says.

Go to Filibusted.us, and you'll find pictures of the senators who have voted the most often to stall debate. Click on a picture, and you'll get a list of those votes and what the senator was trying to throw roadblocks in front of.

Another winning application, at Legistalker.org, lets people keep track of any member of Congress with just a couple of clicks. You can see what's on Twitter, what's on YouTube and even what lawmakers are saying in old-school media such as newspapers and TV.

That's just the beginning, Johnson says. He says his favorite app is called Know Thy Congressman. Using the widget, you can highlight the name of a senator or congressman in anything you're reading online, click a button that says KTC, and up pops a window with a wealth of data on that politician.

The information includes the number of bills they've co-sponsored as well as bills they've debated and enacted; top campaign contributors; and photographs and articles online. It's like an entire research project right at your fingertips — anyone's fingertips — for free.

'Transparency Kills Apathy'

There are dozens of other applications. And most of the people who came up with these new tools don't work for government watchdog groups, and they're not investigative journalists. They're mostly just young, politically aware and web-savvy. The Sunlight Foundation thinks of itself as simply the spark.

"This is a new realm, which a lot of people in the political arena have not yet come to grips with," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference on the intersection of politics and technology. "And it has massive implications for reorganizing what our perception of governance really is in our society."

Rasiej says that because of these new watchdogs, like the Sunlight Foundation, OpenCongress.org and OpenSecrets.org, citizens are coming to expect easy access to information. For example, when Obama announced that the government had set up a Web site to track stimulus money, Recovery.gov immediately started getting 3,000 hits a second — and the number of visitors goes up every day.

That's not to say a shift toward open information in government is going to be easy. There are dozens of agencies and hundreds of people who will have to adopt a new attitude if it's going to work. But the White House is making more and more data available to outside groups every day, and Johnson sees this as a natural progression.

"We live in a society now where if it's not on the Internet, it doesn't exist," he says, adding that transparency is leading to a new era of citizen involvement. "The more transparent we make government, the more people can participate in it. And when people participate in it, they're no longer apathetic about it. So transparency kills apathy."

That's exactly what motivates Johnson, as he and other young watchdogs use their 21st century crowbars to pry open the government.

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