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.