Collaboration in Civic Spheres

The Next Phase For Public Eye Northwest

by October 18th, 2011

The Seattle-based non-profit Public Eye Northwest (PEN) has just received approval from the Internal Revenue Service to operate as a tax-exempt 501c3 public charity. This will enable the ramping up of an investment campaign to sustain the organization. Formed in late 2010 first as a Washington state non-profit, PEN advances voluntary government transparency and civic education through public service journalism and community outreach work. PEN is non-partisan.

One key project of PEN is the news knowledge base Public Data Ferret, which produces plain-language summaries of recent, high-news value public documents found online. The summaries are then archived and searchable at the Ferret hub by jurisdiction and topic – and are used by media, students and researchers, government and a range of other stakeholders. Public Data Ferret is a member of the Seattle Times News Partner Network. PEN also trains student journalists, and has led forums about voluntary online government transparency for the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy, Seattle Pacific University, the U.S. State Department’s Visiting Foreign Leadership Program, groups of public affairs professionals, and others.

PEN provides free informal consultations to government officials on how to improve online transparency, and at its Social Capital Review blog – the parent site of Public Data Ferret – PEN also promotes the work of other non-profits on concerns such as literacy, public health, public lands and recreation, human rights, open government and civic engagement. Additionally and in cooperation with top scholars, PEN has begun an “open science” reporting initiative to highlight key findings of medical and scientific research from publicly-funded institutions serving Western Washington (particularly the University of Washington), and the U.S.

David Griswold, Vice-President of PEN’s 10-member board of directors, said, “now that we’ve got federal tax-exempt status we’re looking forward to reaching out for investment that will help our organization sustain its work of daylighting what the public sector does and why a lot of that matters to us all.” Griswold added, “The Seattle region is blessed with a vibrant ecosystem of innovative news providers and civic engagement programs. At the same time though, there has been an explosion across the U.S. of social media and news and commentary sites that are often entrenched in partisan warfare. This accents the need for factual, objective information from unbiased sources as a building block for public engagement, and civility in the public square. Established mainstream media still make valuable contributions, but community and non-profit actors have to step in, as well. PEN is filling an important role with its systematic focus on the stuff that slips between the cracks.”

PEN founder and Executive Director Matt Rosenberg emphasized the importance of voluntary government transparency. He said, “Mandated government disclosure through open records and open meetings laws is a cornerstone of our democracy and goes hand in hand with freedom of the press and freedom of political expression. But disclosure laws, as essential as they are, don’t currently yield the kind of baseline transparency needed. We’re encouraged to see more and more government bodies that are already starting to go the extra mile by making important documents and data available online without being required to do so by law; things such as staff memos, draft legislation, special reports, studies, investigations, audits, contracts with vendors, meeting agendas, meeting packet documents, special search tools for sets of public records, and government data sets that civic-minded software developers can turn into new, stakeholder-focused apps.”

Rosenberg added, “As a society we can always use more and better government transparency, whether it results from stronger disclosure laws, collaboration between the public and officialdom, or both. But even as we search for more sunlight, there’s already an abundance of information out there. So one big question is, ‘what do you do with transparency once you’ve got it?’ Information can be used in ways that add to today’s political polarization and stridency, or in ways that build bridges and help provide bottom-up solutions to challenges faced by those who collect and spend tax monies. Stakeholders are not ‘eyeballs’ to be marketed to; more and more they are choosing to be full-fledged participants in shaping the collective will, with a sharp eye on difficult public policy decisions we face in our city halls, public school systems, statehouses and the U.S. Congress.”

Public Eye Northwest received pro-bono representation from the Seattle law firm Foster Pepper in its application for federal tax-exempt status.

Donate to our tax-exempt parent non-profit, Public Eye Northwest.


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