September 29, 2020; The Fulcrum

Taking innovative risks and helping change history does not always lead to a long life. After 15 years of trailblazing work promoting government transparency the Sunlight Foundation has closed for good.

Sunlight’s role is “no longer essential to its original central mission,” co-founder and Board Chairman Michael Klein, said in a farewell letter posted to the Sunlight site. “Virtually all of the activities and staff of Sunlight have been transferred to other engaged institutions, or closed.”

About fifteen years ago, in November 2005, Ellen Miller and I created the Sunlight Foundation in an effort to demonstrate that the then-emerging tools of computer technology could have a positive impact on citizen understanding and oversight of government and the political spheres, using the internet and API’s we would develop and employ to implement Louis Brandeis’ mantra, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the best policeman.”

Over the years that followed, the staff and supporters of the Sunlight Foundation led the way in demonstrating those possibilities, facilitating many improvements in oversight, transparency and citizen participation. Best of all, that activity encouraged and facilitated a generation of others—so many that Sunlight’s leadership came to be overtaken by a flood of other effective innovators and advocates, many of which we are proud to have supported. We have now reached the point at which Sunlight’s board has determined that its role is no longer essential to its original central mission. All good things come to an end. And so it is with the Sunlight Foundation.

The foundation made itself a trailblazer by pioneering the use of technology to improve the state of public knowledge about government, policy, and politics, but the trail it blazed turned out to be well travelled, as others saw the value in its approach and made similar uses of the innovative technology to establish even more up-to-date tools and other public databases. Over its short life, the foundation established around 50 public databases, some of which are now maintained by other institutions like the Center for Responsive Politics and ProPublica, but eventually it began having a set of internal and external problems that has, it appears, finally made closure the best option even in the face of its very significant legacy.

There are very few that follow the organization who will be shocked; the organization had been experiencing leadership turnover issues and fundraising problems and had even been said to be entertaining a merger over the past few years, but there is no doubt about the fact that its presence will linger and inform.—Ruth McCambridge