Sunlight Foundation image

In 1610, upstart philosophers and astronomers challenged the prevailing notion that the earth was the center of the universe. Four hundred years later, upstart activists are challenging the long-held assumption that government is at the center of the transparency movement.

Left alone, government acts as owner of the public record. And when government rubs against others who have an interest in the public record, this presumption of ownership gives way to the responsibility of stewardship, even with the friction that comes from such a multi-disciplinary process.

But government is not alone, nor is it at the center of the transparency universe, according to the 4-year-old nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which draws its name from Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis' famous observation that "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." The foundation has done us the favor of diagramming what this universe looks like.

Its "Cycle of Transparency" is based on the idea that government should be part of a community that revolves around transparency in the service of an open and accountable government. The foundation's view is that government is not at the center of transparency; it is on the outside with many other players, all of whom are engaging in something bigger than government itself-and that government is based on a broader set of terms that affects the overall community's priorities, demands and expectations.

Sunlight's model draws attention to the other players in open government and the transparency cycle. The cycle's release has been a catalyst for much comment and critique. Some reviewers have suggested that the model is too complex, while others say it is overly simple. At New York state's Open Government Summit held in March-where the cycle was a topic of discussion-some delegates were surprised to see lobbyists included as part of the solution in making money flows more transparent and government more accountable.

There was also some grumbling that the category of Web developers was too narrow to reflect the contribution of the technology industry as a whole. In a recent conversation, Sunlight Foundation Engagement Director Jake Brewer explained that industry players have a significant role in helping government to organize data, make data accessible and give data context-all of which are integral parts of the transparency cycle.

The expanded use and analysis of real-time government data also reflects the foundation's view that transparency has important if latent economic potential. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and now champion of transparency in the United Kingdom, touched on this view when he said, "The openness of governments is one of the things which makes investors decide whether to invest. When you make the government open, when they can see what's happening, they're much more likely to bring their money and companies into your country."

As the country's economy recovers, this dimension may prove more potent than the classic accountability argument for transparency in breaking down resistance to change within government.

The record from the first 43 years of the modern transparency movement is decidedly mixed. In talking about sunlight as a disinfectant, Brandeis went on to call "electric light the most efficient policeman," to which we might add digital data the greatest accelerant.

In thinking about the continuing hard work of having government revolve around the sun, it is worth remembering one other thing Brandeis said: "Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done."