Is This the End of the Sunlight Foundation?

An early pioneer of open government faces a crisis of self-confidence.

The sun sets over the U.S. Capitol Building
Jason Reed / Reuters

For the nerdy champions of government transparency, there have been few years where the issue has seemed as weird—or as weirdly prominent—as in 2016.

Many of the year’s biggest stories revolve around how public public servants and public documents should be. Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns or medical records, becoming the most secretive candidate in the modern era. Yet his campaign has been helped by strategically timed document releases organized by third-party websites and hackers—all of whom claim the mantle of radical transparency, and some of whom have ties to the Russian government.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has fought a persistent but less substantive scandal about the operation of her private email server, and she has watched the media dissect the thousands of emails that she wrote during her tenure as secretary of state. And Bernie Sanders nearly won the Democratic primary by campaigning against the miasma of corruption that infects the federal government.

Voters seem to value transparency more than ever before, yet the principle is more endangered this election than it has been since the Nixon presidency. It is a defining moment for open government in America.

You’d think the Sunlight Foundation would be raring for a fight. Since its inception, in January 2006, the nonprofit has advocated for a new, digitally savvy vision of open government. It has pushed for campaign-finance reform and defended the Freedom of Information Act. It’s made services like Politiwoops, which collects and preserves tweets after politicians delete them from their official accounts; and it’s become a flagship for the civic-tech movement, which aims to build online tools for the public good.

So developers and designers with a public-minded bent were surprised to discover that, in this of all years, the nonprofit seemingly has no idea what to do with itself.

In what Politico aptly called an “unusual blog post,” the Sunlight Foundation announced on Monday that it had failed to find a new executive director and a justifying vision for the organization. As such, Sunlight may shut down or merge with another organization by the end of the year.

“We are aware that the robust maturation of technology over the past decade has—happily but substantially—reduced the urgency of Sunlight’s early role as a leading transparency innovator,” wrote Mike Klein, its founder and chairman. “In addition, the board had to recognize that Sunlight’s initiating objective—to build support for better legislation against and regulation of the power of money in politics—has been significantly limited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United decision.”

Klein also announced that it will no longer financially support its technology arm, Sunlight Labs. Poynter reported that Sunlight will also lay off five people in preparation for a possible merger. The nonprofit employed about 20 staff before this week.

Taken together, the posts presented ominous but confusing news. By Wednesday, Sunlight’s acting director had to clarify that the organization wasn’t actually closing.

“Nothing’s been decided,” he tweeted*. “Still here.”

Alex Howard, a policy analyst at Sunlight, confirmed on Twitter that the organization was not shutting down**.

Developers and civic programmers mourned the Sunlight Foundation on Twitter anyway. And from my perspective, Sunlight’s crisis of confidence seemed to crystallize an uneasy moment in the field of civic technology. More than ever, a large slice of the electorate seems interested in the cause of open government. Yet Citizens United in 2010 has made a founding expectation—that merely exposing soft corruption to “sunlight” would eliminate it—obsolete. Where should amateur and professional developers go now?

“There’s an expectation that we should have all figured out our theory of change by now and that we should’ve succeeded in it,” said Joshua Tauberer, the creator of GovTrack, an online service that lets people follow Congressional legislation. “In the last 10 years, [some people expect that] we’d have started from scratch, figured out a theory of change, and fixed the world.”

In truth, most people got into civic tech without knowing what they were doing and with only hypotheses about a theory of change, Tauberer said. As they’ve watched the space change and mature, they’ve also changed their expectations for what it can do.

“My personal way of understanding what GovTrack has been successful at has changed over time. Success to me now is not that I’m weeding out corruption, but that I’m helping people participate in government,” he told me.

He and other civic-tech veterans agreed that Sunlight succeeded in part by training many developers who eventually just went on to work for the federal government.

One of those people is Eric Mill. Mill is now a developer at 18F, the U.S. government’s internal technology consulting firm, but he started his career in civic tech at Sunlight. When he started working there in 2009, “civic tech” wasn’t a phrase anyone was using, he told me.

“We're lucky enough to now be living in an era, one created in part by Sunlight, where more governments are publishing more open data—sometimes proactively, without even having to be badgered all the time. That’s fantastic, but it could very easily dissipate,” he said in an instant-message comment. “One of the least obvious but most powerful things that Sunlight did was empower those civil servants, inside agencies and parliaments, to show that someone cared about the data, someone would make use of the data, and that someone knew what the data even was.”

He praised a new set of decentralized, locally focused open-government groups, like Code for DC and Chi Hack Night, for continuing to work on transparency:

As these groups continue, they'll have to face a lot of the same problems that Sunlight never quite figured out the answer to: How do you sustain the energy and resources to maintain projects that should keep going, and how do you see beyond sunk costs to responsibly end projects that shouldn’t keep going?

Outside of these questions, the Sunlight Foundation also faced organization-specific challenges. It had not received a new multimillion-dollar grant for operating costs since 2012. Its founder and chairman, Mike Klein, provided at least $9.5 million to the organization in general support since its founding.

Sunlight’s leadership had also been in flux since Klein’s cofounder, Ellen Miller, stepped down as executive director in 2014. Chris Gates, a veteran of nonprofit management, took over from Miller, but he resigned with little explanation in January of this year.

Sunlight’s dependence on a visionary executive director seemed to mirror a situation faced by Ada Initiative, a nonprofit that advocated for women in open-source technology settings. After Ada failed to find a new executive director to replace its founder last year, it closed down.

For open-government advocates working outside of 18F, the questions that would follow Sunlight’s demise are in some ways more focused versions of points that skeptics have been making for 10 years. The developer and activist Aaron Swartz, who died in 2013, is now remembered as an advocate for transparency. But he criticized the Sunlight Foundation’s aims from the beginning.

“Just as Web 2.0 pixie dust doesn’t automatically make your web site into a success, just making important data available won’t cause political change,” he wrote on his blog, soon after its establishment in 2006. “Justice Brandeis’s clever aphorism to the contrary, sunlight is not in fact the best disinfectant; actual disinfectant is. Sunlight just makes it easier for people to look at the pus.”

* This article originally described a tweet from John Wonderlich, Sunlight’s executive director, as being sent on Monday; it was actually sent on Wednesday.

** This article originally misstated Alex Howard’s title and the meaning of his tweet. He is a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, not the director of Sunlight Labs, and his tweet confirmed only that the Sunlight Foundation still existed. We regret the errors.