If the collapse of the global financial system has taught us anything, it’s that Main Street deserves a great deal more transparency from Wall Street.
Take American International Group (AIG). The world’s biggest insurance company did more than its fair share to cripple the world economy. Yet last week it said it would pay $165 million in bonuses to executives—even as the company only remains afloat courtesy of $185 billion in taxpayer cash.
If ever there was a case of well-placed populist outrage, this was it. But that populist outrage quickly turned into a seemingly transformative moment in the intersection of big business and the executive branch. Just hours after the news broke, President Obama ordered Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to “pursue every single legal avenue” to block the bonuses.
That’s not just a resounding break from the corporate-friendly culture of the Bush White House; it’s proof positive that the new president is serious about his campaign pledges to make Wall Street and government accountable and transparent—assuming it sticks.
Sure, the seemingly endless stream of bonuses brouhahas, neglected taxes and million-dollar corner office redecorations have brought an unprecedented level of public scrutiny on corporate and Cabinet doings—and shenanigans. But they are but the tip of the crisis iceberg. With 700 billion on the line and the future of the economy at stake, there’s never been more reason to hold the people behind all of it accountable.
In response, so-called transparency projects have been popping up in the months since the election. To monitor the stimulus bill spending, the government’s own Recovery.gov site has pledged “unprecedented” accountability, and groups like StimulusWatch.org have collected details on “shovel-ready” projects around the country. (For more on stimulus transparency projects, see Clint Hendler’s recent piece, See-Through Stimulus.)
But while most of these outfits are focused on bringing transparency to how the stimulus money is spent, two other new sites are geared toward monitoring the people holding the purse strings. Both sites are building searchable databases that reveal the connections and histories of people in government and the corporate world, including senators, cabinet members, regulators and company executives, to name just a few.
The first to launch was LittleSis.org, a nonprofit funded by a grant from the Sunlight Foundation whose name is a play on George Orwell’s infamous “Big Brother.” The site bills itself as an “involuntary Facebook for powerful Americans.” While it might look like Facebook—it borrows from that site’s interface—LittleSis functions like Wikipedia, building profiles, relationships, and donor lists for various projects through crowd sourcing.
Each profile on LittleSis includes information about Relationships, Interlocks, Giving and Vital Stats. The profile of Merrill Lynch’s former CEO John Thain, for instance, has his memberships at various business forums and roundtables. Those gatherings “interlock” him with powerful people in common organizations, who are also listed. Under the Giving tab, Thain’s campaign contributions to the Republican National Committee, Bush-Cheney ‘04, and John McCain are on display. Below those contribution numbers are lists of people who have made similar donations.
LittleSis launched just weeks before The Washington Post’s WhoRunsGov.com, which debuted two days after Obama’s inauguration. The site uses a Wiki-designed interface to run its for-profit collection of more than three thousand profiles of people in government, military, and business—a daunting task for a staff of just seven, which is where collaborative crowd-sourcing comes in.
“When a reference book is published now, it’s out of date the next day,” says Rachel Van Dongen, the editor of WhoRunsGov. “We can’t hope to keep a database of three thousand people current by ourselves, which is why we’re really hoping and relying on the people to help keep it going.”
The idea for the project came from inside the Post, and it hopes to emulate the mainstream’s ethos of objectivity. Its profiles are professionally written, detailed, fact-checked profiles.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nimble enough to contribute to a breaking story. Such was the case with Chas Freeman, Obama’s virtually unknown nominee to chair the National Intelligence Council, who withdrew his nomination after a firestorm of criticism from the right.
“As soon as his name began to resonate in the political sphere, we were able to get a profile up pretty quickly,” says Van Dongen. Freeman’s profile was quickly linked to from The Plum Line, Greg Sargent’s political blog at WhoRunsGov which works hand in hand with the site to chronicle political power in D.C. as it happens.
“It represented the perfect storm of what we were trying to do,” says Van Dongen. “Let the people who know these public figures tell us who they are.”
True to its Wiki-ness, WhoRunsGov will open to public editing in the spring or early summer, allowing anyone to submit changes or additions that will be cleared by an editor before being published live on the site.
LittleSis, too, is still in its beta version, says Matthew Skomarovsky, one of the site’s founders, though it is building a list of contributors, who are called “analysts.” He suggests that this flowering of online projects is both a function of Web sites becoming easier to build, and a reaction to the secretive years of the Bush administration: “When government fails to open itself up, you find that people will open up government.”Kate Klonick is a journalist in New York City. She has written for ABCNews.com, Esquire, The Guardian, The Washington Independent and Talking Points Memo.