A story about data: Kirsten Gillibrand on the right way for government officials to expose themselves online

Kirsten Gillibrand. (Screencap via PdF's livestream.)
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“I haven’t been in Washington very long, but the truth of the matter is that [the government] is broken,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

She was speaking onstage at the New York University Skirball Center as part of the Personal Democracy Forum, the 8th annual two-day conference about how technology is changing politics.

Gillibrand, who has become one of the Senate’s most outspoken liberals, lamented that Washington hasn’t done a better job of earning the faith of her constituents who, she said, are in need of jobs but don’t trust the government to help them find work.

“They feel that Washington is so broken, they don’t see Washington working well enough to solve that problem,” she said.

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Then she gave the audience—which consisted largely of online entrepreneurs, coders, political activists—exactly what it came for.

Part of the solution, she said, ought to be to make government more open, transparent and accountable through technology and the internet. By posting her daily schedule online, disclosing her financial statements, and communicating with voters on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, she is making “sure that everyday people can have a voice and be heard,” she said.

Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based, nonprofit organization that advocates for government transparency, had introduced Gillibrand by calling the senator’s work as “a transparency revolution.”

“It’s not just a talking point for her, she lives and breathes it every single day,” Miller said.

In 2006, when Gillibrand first ran for Congress as an underdog challenger to Republican incumbent John Sweeney, she signed on to the Punch Clock Campaign, a project engineered by the Sunlight Foundation and entrepreneur Andrew Rasiej, who once ran for New York City public advocate on a platform of government transparency and universal internet access. (Rasiej, a founder of Personal Democracy Forum, is also an investor in Capital.)

She became one of a number of candidates running for Congress to pledge that if they got elected, they would publish daily schedules online, including details on who they were lunching or meeting with and why. When she unexpectedly won, after Sweeney got caught up in personal scandal, it was a big deal for public-data nerds, who finally had their champion.

She followed through on the pledge.

Gillbrand said that “that simple piece of information” allowed citizens to decide whether they agreed with the groups she was meeting with and also allowed them to “ask for the same opportunity to be heard, and empower people.”

She hopes to have sparked a movement among her colleagues to follow suit.

“I could show my colleagues that it works,” she said. “It wasn’t some awful occurrence that would make it impossible to do my job. What they saw was that it made me do a better job.”

In much the same spirit, Gillibrand also became one of the first politicians to publish her earmark requests and disclose her personal finance details online. And in Washington, Gillibrand and conservative Republican senator Tom Coburn have drafted a bill to create a searchable national database of earmarks.

“It makes it much easier to hold elected officials accountable, and make sure that “their requests truly reflect the priorities of their communities,” she said.

Gillibrand also called for a ban on anonymous holds, which allows senators to stall legislation. And she reiterated her support of the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, a bill that would require Senate candidates to file campaign statements and reports in electronic form, providing a mean for the media and public to the search for information about contributions online.

What Americans want, according to Gillibrand, is security against cyber war (terrorists shutting down electronic grids or getting control of a stock exchange). They also want access to the internet. She said she is working on securing money to build broadband infrastructure in rural areas across the states.

“There’s just no excuse for our government to remain in the last century,” she said.

The audience agreed with her, loudly.


Note: An earlier version of this article indicated that Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation was an "adviser" to Gillibrand in 2006. Miller was an advocate for the Punch Clock Campaign, which Gillibrand agreed to participate in.

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