Creating useful transparency: How I learned to love sunlight and built the Spending Tracker

Next week is Sunshine Week, a “nationwide celebration of access to public information,” and it’s a rare point of agreement across the political spectrum that more transparency and accountability in government is generally a good thing.

Yet in many areas of government, gobs of apparent transparency already exist. Salaries paid to administrators, contracts awarded to private companies and yes, even the emails of public officials are often available to the general public and have been, in some cases, for a long time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, opponents of “too much” transparency come from the right, left and center as well.

One topic that’s less discussed is the more nuanced question of when transparency is likely to be effective at righting perceived ills in the first place. On this question, there are a few points to consider:

First, more transparency is likely to have the greatest impact in areas that have previously had little sunlight. This might seem like common sense—and for the most part, it is—but it’s important to resist the inclination to overlook those areas of government that might be more difficult, but also more important, to bring into the open.

Second, transparency is most likely to be impactful when applied systematically, rather than looked at in isolation. A one-off fight to open up a particular committee hearing can be valuable, but larger efforts to increase openness across the board might have a greater effect in aggregate.

A great example of this point is the work done by Josh Tauberer of and Daniel Schumann of Demand Progress among others to make public the reports prepared for Congress by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Sure, a few blockbuster reports are likely to garner outsized attention relative to the thousands on niche topics, but if the fight had focused only on making those few public, it’s less likely we’d be reading any of them at all.

Finally, transparency isn’t just about making information public for its own sake, but rather presenting facts and data in new and unique ways. My own work with provides a good example here.

Vote records of members of Congress have been publicly available for decades, and estimates of the budgetary impact of legislation has been online since around the same time, too.

What wasn’t available were the intersection of the two: the individual impacts of the members who took those votes. That information, brought together on, provided a new way of looking at old data.

Users have the ability to sort, examine and make sense of this vital information through overall rankings of members, individual profiles with detailed information about each vote and state pages for comparing across delegations.

What’s more, the data made public on the Spending Tracker provide more than just raw figures; users can play with the data on their own, changing everything from budget windows and bill statuses to spending types and sessions of Congress.

Can there be too much transparency? Maybe, but there are many facets of transparency, and the bigger point is that it will ultimately do the most good when it presents new data in interesting and previously unavailable or unthought-of ways.

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Topics: Budget & Appropriations