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A Very Special Afternoon Episode of "Opening Congress"

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, June 10 2010

Today at 2:15 east coast time, the Sunlight Foundation will once again fire up its Sunlight Live platform, this time for the joint House-Senate conference committee where members from both chambers will work to hammer out an agreement on financial regulation reform legislation.* Sunlight Live's magic trick is to blend together different parts of the open government movement in an attempt to move the country to a better politics. And it's as good a place as any to start to answer the question of what open government circa 2010 might mean for the actual practice of government.

First off, there's real-time transparency in the form of live streaming video, courtesy of C-SPAN and will the backing of powerful members of Congress. Barney Frank (D-MA), chair of the House Financial Services Committee and chair of the conference committee has argued Politico that airing the event via C-SPAN was a fulfillment of a promise made by President Obama." Remember this, 'Let’s do it all on C-SPAN?,'" Frank said to Politico. "Clear your calendar.'" C-SPAN announced yesterday (pdf) that they will cover the financial reform conference "each day it meets" -- sometimes on their TV networks, and at all times online.

Second up is cold hard data, the holy grail for at least one part of the open government movement. Sunlight's Live interface overlays different information sources in an attempt to add context and depth to the proceedings. Sunlight has done the same in the past, but this being negotiations over the future of the financial markets and financial services industry adds an extra dash bit of drama; one of the data sets likely to be called into the room today, for example, is the Center for Responsive Politics' information on the financial holdings of each member of Congress, pulled onto center stage when he or she is speaking. So when Senator X is speaking about mortgage derivatives, for examples, you'll see on the screen the tidbit that he happens to own several thousands of dollars worth of stock in a mortgage company.

Lastly, there's citizen participation. Sunlight Live also includes a CoverItLive live blog. If the past is precedent, today's live blog will be managed by knowledgeable Sunlight staffers but with the involvement of anyone online who might care to have his or her say about what's happening on the Hill. (The #finreg Twitter stream is also being pulled into the mix, to capture the broader online conversation about the process.)

So today is a nice, if early, test of the idea that the tools of transparency can better American governance. Will it be clarifying? Confusing? Inconclusive? Probably!

There are, no doubt, challenges built into the process. For one thing, remember when Rep. Frank said, "Clear you calendars"? Man was not kidding. Predictions are that it will take several weeks for the House and Senate conferees to work out an agreeable compromise package, making closely following the doings a real time commitment. (Tim Fernholz has a great rundown of the financial reg conference will likely work.) Also complicating things is that much of the real negotiating will happen off-stage. That said, if you have an interest in how transparency plus data plus citizen participation might tweak politics as a we know it, go ahead and tune in here today at 2:15.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.