Transparency advocates are questioning the sincerity of Barack Obama’s inauguration-day pledge to create “a new era of openness” in government. The administration has taken concrete steps toward creating more transparency and cooperation between the government and the American people, but it’s also disappointed many with a sometimes baffling degree of secrecy. Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, told Congressional Quarterly, “There is real transparency, and then there is transparency theater. I can distinguish between the two.”
Miller’s criticism is notable, in part because the Sunlight Foundation has been one of the White House’s best partners on transparency issues. At the National Civic Summit in July, the administration’s Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra, touted the organization’s Apps for America contest as a prime example of the government’s commitment to cooperation.
Participants in Apps for America try to create the best application presenting raw government data in a new and interesting light. The winner of last year’s contest was Filibusted, a website that tries to hold Senators accountable for their use of the filibuster. Applications for this year’s Apps for America 2 include SpendTrendus, a website that allows users to track government spending by keyword.
The Sunlight Foundation was also cited recently in an $18 million government contract awarded to the software company Smartronix to help the federal government bring more transparency to the “stimulus package.” The problem with that deal, according to the investigative website ProPublica, is thatthe details of that contract released to the public “are so heavily blacked out they are virtually worthless.”
The software company asserted in the contract that the Sunlight Foundation “is willing to advise Team Smartronix on transparency,” a characterization that the organization disputed. Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation told ProPublica that he had never been contacted directly by the company and isn’t involved in the contract. He added, “We’re willing to advise anybody on transparency.”
The issue with the Smartronix contract isn’t really transparency, since the company’s work could actually increase openness. In an interview with Utne Reader, Johnson emphasized, “people want authenticity” in government. That authenticity, according to Johnson, is what separates real transparency from “transparency theater.”
For more, read Utne Reader‘s past coverage of government transparency and accountability.