Who Watches The Watchers: How Much Is Enough Surveillance Transparency?

America is reeling over the apparent disconnect between what the public believes the intelligence community is doing, what the intelligence community believes it is authorized to do — and what the intelligence community is actually doing.

With a deadline to extend and/or reform controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act looming, this is a critical time for Congress and the American people to know all they can about the executive branch’s intelligence activities. But how much is too much?

What should the public know? What should Congress know? What is the right vehicle for these disclosures? Perhaps most importantly, what is the effect on our democracy of inadequate public and congressional oversight? Join the Advisory Committee on Transparency and our panel of experts on Friday, May 8, 2015, from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building to discuss these questions and more. The event is free for all to attend.

  • Sean Vitka, federal policy manager, the Sunlight Foundation [Moderator]
  • Frederick A.O. “Fritz” Schwarz, Jr. author, “Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy;” chief counsel, Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law
  • Mieke Eoyang, director of the National Security Program, Third Way
  • Bob Litt, general counsel, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
  • Patrick Toomey staff attorney, ACLU National Security Project [Invited]

How To Make Your Job Easier With Open Government Tools

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 from 2:30 to 4:30 P.M. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building

Open government is vital for public accountability. But, it also fuels tools that can make congressional staff more efficient, improve oversight activities, protect whistleblowers and more. Hear from experts in the open government field — including current and former congressional staff — as they share tools, tips, and tricks to make you more effective on the job:

  • Shanna Devine, Legislative Director, Government Accountability Project will discuss how to help whistleblowers navigate the disclosure process and protect themselves
  • Daniel Epstein, Executive Director, Cause of Action will explore theories of oversight and specific tools that can make oversight more effective
  • Hudson Hollister, Executive Director, Data Transparency Coalition will explore several tools powered by open government data
  • Seamus Kraft, Executive Director, The OpenGov Foundation will explain how to use Madison to collaboratively draft legislation and policy in the open
  • Amy Ngai, Partnerships and Training Director, Sunlight Foundation will show off how Scout can be used to track legislation, regulations, court decisions, and more
  • Justin Rood, Director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative, the Project on Government Oversight will discuss his program and how it can be useful to Congressional staff
  • Reynold Schweickhardt, Director of Technology Policy, Committee on House Administration will discuss a variety of efforts underway in the House to improve digital workflow and regularize committee information

Helping The 114th Congress Build A More Transparent Government.

Despite constant reports of gridlock and polarization one issue has brought Republicans and Democrats together in recent years — government transparency. In the 113th Congress alone they fought to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, changed the way the Federal government tracks and shares spending data, and adopted new protections for whistleblowers.

These improvements have been rightly celebrated, but there is more work to be done. As the 113th Congress comes to a close, it is time to identify priorities and possibilities for next year and beyond. The task of opening up the government should continue to bring the parties together in the 114th Congress.

The Advisory Committee on Transparency and the Sunlight Foundation are excited to provide a forum for a panel of experts and advocates from across the political spectrum to discuss their ideas for reforms and strategies for success. Join us on Thursday, December 11th from 12:30 to 1:30 pm in room 342 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.


  • Dan Epstein, Executive Director, Cause of Action
  • Sean Moulton, Director of Open Government Policy, Center for Effective Government
  • Shanna Devine, Legislative Director, Government Accountability Project
  • Rick Blum, Coordinator, Sunshine in Government Initiative
  • Matt Rumsey, Policy Associate, The Sunlight Foundation

Event Recap: Bringing Light Into The Law


On Monday, September 22nd a group of experts joined the Advisory Committee on Transparency and the Sunlight Foundation to discuss the increasingly complicated nature of public access to law.

Laws passed by Congress and state legislatures are far from the only documents that have the power of law. Technical standards, secret court opinions, municipal regulations, complex international trade documents, and more touch every American. These are often nearly impossible, and sometimes illegal, for the public to access.

Participants in the panel discussion, moderated by the Sunlight Foundation’s Matt Rumsey, covered the full scope of this topic from the technical challenges that go along with making the law accessible to the legal arguments used by government to hide the law — and by watchdogs to open it up.

Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel and policy adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union, highlighted some of his organization’s efforts to open up legal documents that have the force of law. These documents, while never passed by a legislature or reviewed by a court, guide executive branch policy in cases related to torture, targeted killings, surveillance, and more. He used these examples to highlight a number of serious dangers associated with secret law and forcefully argued that making law in secret and withholding it from public knowledge de-legitimizes the lawmaking process and leads to bad law.

Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, focused on a few specific reforms that could significantly improve public access to law. She noted some simple reforms to the Freedom of Information Act, that could become law soon, may make it easier to gain access to vital executive branch legal documents. She also highlighted the troublesome issue of “access for pay” that comes up when private companies are given control over legal documents and then hide those documents behind paywalls.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, set the historical stage by explaining that access to law has been baked into American democracy since the start of our union. While citizens have always had an expectation of easy access, the Internet changed everything by making it exponentially easier to disseminate and access information. Given technological changes and the power of our government, Schuman argued, citizen access must be proportional to the law’s ability to affect lives.

As the only government employee on the panel it might have been expected that V. David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Washington, DC City Council, would feel differently than the other panelists. But, that was far from the case. David detailed some of his efforts, both as a government employee and private citizen, to make the laws of the District of Columbia more easily available to its citizens. He particularly highlighted some of the technical — and contractual — challenges associated with making complex legal documents available online.

All of the speakers agreed that public access to law is vital to a healthy, well functioning democracy.

Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties, we are not able to share an audio or video recording of the event. You can view a more detailed wrap up from U.S. News and World Report.

Bringing Light Into The Law: Access To Law In A Rapidly Changing World

Public access to the laws of the land is a principle that has thrived for centuries. Without it, citizens would be powerless to navigate everyday interactions with their governments and the “rule of law” could collapse. Unfortunately, the scope of “law” has expanded rapidly and public access is struggling to keep up.

Laws passed by Congress and State legislatures are far from the only documents that have the power of law. Technical standards, secret court opinions, municipal regulations, complex international trade documents, and more touch every American. These are often nearly impossible, and sometimes illegal, for the public to access.

The Advisory Committee on Transparency is excited to host a conversation on Monday, September 22 from 2:00 – 3:30 pm in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Buildingexploring these “secret laws” and discussing ways to boost the public’s ability to access and understand them. You can register for this free event here.


*Daniel Schuman, Policy Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

*Gabe Rottman, Legislative Counsel and Policy Adviser, American Civil Liberties Union

*Patrice McDermott, Executive Director, OpenTheGovernment.org

*V. David Zvenyach, General Counsel, Council of the District of Columbia

*Moderator: Matt Rumsey, the Sunlight Foundation

The Future Of FOIA: Moving The Freedom Of Information Act Into The 21st Century

To celebrate Sunshine Week and recent House passage of the FOIA Act, the Sunlight Foundation and the Advisory Committee on Transparency are hosting an event on the Future of FOIA. The panel discussion will assess efforts and ideas to bring the Freedom of Information Act into the future, ensuring that it continues to be an effective tool to shed light on the inner workings of government far into the 21st century.

The event will be held on Wednesday, March 19 from 2:00 – 3:30 p.m. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building. The panel of experts will include:

  • Amy Bennett: Assistant Director, OpenTheGovernment.org
  • Ali Ahmad: Majority Staff, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
  • Corinna Zarek: Policy Adviser for Open Government, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Krista Boyd: Minority Staff, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
  • Ginger McCall, Moderator: Associate Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center

The DATA Act And Beyond: Video And Recap

Last month, we convened a panel of experts to discuss trending topics in government spending transparency. Our panel included Hudson Hollister, Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition, Nancy DiPaolo, Chief of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, and Navin Beekarry, an Associate fellow at George Washington University Law School’s Center for Law, Economics, and Finance.

We are happy to share video from the event:

The DATA Act And Beyond: An Event Exploring Government Spending Transparency

Following the flow of government spending data is a complex, and often fruitless, pursuit. At the federal level there are few standards to ensure consistent reporting across agencies, public reporting is limited, and the accuracy of data is difficult to verify. The infrastructure used to track federal spending has often been updated in an ad-hoc manner and is in need of a thoughtful redesign.

The DATA Act, legislation that incorporates lessons learned and best practices from federal agencies, is moving through Congress and could soon become law. If passed, it will ensure that more, and more accurate, federal spending data is made publicly available online.

We are excited to host a panel assessing the current state of spending transparency and examining the challenges facing its future. Our group of experts will discuss the DATA Act’s prospects, detail efforts underway within the executive branch, and explore the future of spending transparency. The event will take place on Monday, December 16 at 2:00 p.m. in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building.

We hope you will be able to join us and ask that you please RSVP here.


*Hudson Hollister: Executive Director, the Data Transparency Coalition

*Nancy DiPaolo: Chief of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board

*Navin Beekarry: Associate Fellow, Center for Law, Economics, and Science George Washington University

*Moderator Kaitlin Devine: Senior Web Developer, the Sunlight Foundation

Transparency Caucus Event – FOIA: Today’s Challenges And Tomorrow’s Opportunities

The Congressional Transparency Caucus is holding an event this Tuesday, March 12, 2013 to discuss recent progress in FOIA reform and explore what still needs to be done to improve public access to government records. The event will take place in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building and will start at 3 p.m.

The Transparency Caucus will hear from a number of noted FOIA experts:

The Congressional Transparency Caucus is co-chaired by Representative’s Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Darrell Issa (R-CA). The Caucus seeks to enact legislation that will bring openness and accessibility to the federal government.

Videos On “Kick-Starting The 113th Congress”

At last Monday’s Advisory Committee on Transparency event, 16 lightning talks were given on transparency-related topics like FOIA, lobbying reform, and opening up congress. The three-minute presentations distilled some of the best thinking by advocates and activists on what the government could do right now to be more open. We’re pleased to make those videos available to you.

  Here’s a list of the talks, broken up by issue area, with links to the videos. Lobbying Reform

  • Sarah Bryner, of the Center for Responsive Politics, encouraged the release of federal lobbyist unique IDs alongside other lobbying data. (Video)
  • Lisa Rosenberg, a Government Affairs Consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, argued that lobbyist registration rules should be tightened to catch those who avoid the current high reporting thresholds. (Video)
  • Robert Maguire, of the Center for Responsive Politics, argued that the IRS should publish online the tax reports that all nonprofits are required to file and include all organizations in summary data. (Video)

Congressional Operations

The Executive Branch

  • Jeremy Miller, the Policy Director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, urged expansion of public access to the DOJ’s office of Legal Counsel opinions.  (Video)
  • Jim Harper, of the Cato Institute, argued that the Federal government’s organization chart should be online in a machine-readable format. (Video)
  • Hudson Hollister, the Executive Director of the Data Transparency Coalition, urged facilitation of Federal spending tracking by requiring all federal awards to have a unique government-wide identifier. (Video)

Improving Member Offices

  • Lorelei Kelly, the Smart Congress Pilot Lead at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, encouraged members of Congress to partner with local colleges to add “Technology Mashup Fellows” in their district offices. (Video)
  • Josh Tauberer, who runs GovTrack.us, argued that members of Congress should hire a “transparency director.” (Video)


  • Rick Blum, the Coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, argued that any attempt to carve exemptions into FOIA must go through the relevant committees of jurisdiction. (Video)
  • Justin McCarthy, of Judicial Watch, contended that the FOIA’s “deliberative process” and other b(5) privileges should be explicitly defined in law. (Video)
  • Gavin Baker, an Open Government Policy Analyst at the Center for Effective Government, argued that agencies should be required to proactively publish more data online. (Video)

Courts and Access to Law

  • Steve Schultze, the Associate Director at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University argued that Federal court opinions stored in PACER should be freely available online to all taxpayers. (Video)
  • Harlan Yu, a partner at Robinson + Yu, argued that Federal law should be made more understandable by enacting the U.S. Code into positive law. (Video)