August 17, 2009

Citizens as government watchdogs

open secrets

JD LasicaYou don’t need to be a card-carrying member of the press corps to serve as a public watchdog over the government and elected officials.

First, the Freedom of Information Act applies to U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, not just members of the Fourth Estate. Since its passage, countless examples of government waste, fraud and mismanagement have been brought to light by citizens, activists and journalists.

In addition, a number of organizations now empower citizens to hold the government accountable. Sites like the Sunlight Foundation, Maplight.org, Opensecrets.org, Follow the Money and OpenCongress are increasingly giving ordinary citizens the ability to easily document the flow of special-interest money and how it influences the legislature. Some of the top government watchdogs:

Sunlight Foundation: The foundation says on its site: “Through our projects and grant-making, Sunlight serves as a catalyst for greater political transparency and to foster more openness and accountability in government. Sunlight’s ultimate goal is to strengthen the relationship between citizens and their elected officials and to foster public trust in government. We are unique in that technology and the power of the Internet are at the core of every one of our efforts. Our work is committed to helping citizens, bloggers and journalists be their own best government watchdogs, by improving access to existing information and digitizing new information, and by creating new tools and Web sites to enable all of us to collaborate in fostering greater transparency.”

Opensecrets.org: From the Center for Responsive Politics, Opensecrets.org helps the public follow the money, such as donations made to legislators and their votes on related issues. A 2007 survey conducted by Opensecrets found that 59 percent of its users said they use the site for personal — not professional — reasons.

Maplight.org: “MapLight.org’s open-data initiative epitomizes a technique known as ‘database journalism,’ a new reporting paradigm that allows citizens to act as consumers, custodians and contributors to vast wells of information stored in web databases,” writes Wired.com.

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