GovTrack asks the crowd to fund accountability of U.S. Congress

Josh

Hoping to improve government accountability by making it easier for citizens to access and digest the details of legislation, Joshua Tauberer, an open government activist, founded GovTrack.us, a site that tracks legislation and votes in the United States Congress since 2004.

Tauberer was an undergraduate at Princeton when he launched the site. During an interview with the Princeton Alumni Weekly, he said at the time, he felt people didn’t really think there was a need for such a project. The government had previously been publishing bills on its own site since 1995, but Tauberer found it all to be cumbersome.

Then, last July, after more than a decade of tracking bills, Tauberer held a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter to help uncover the daily activities of the U.S. Congress.

“One of the most requested features from users is to summarize the bills that have been introduced in Congress,” he said. “Prior to the Kickstarter, everything on GovTrack was automated. There was no staff. The site just ran itself, pulling in official information each day.”

Because summarizing legislation isn’t something that can be automated, and because there are so many bills in Congress, Tauberer realized it would take a sizable staff to summarize everything and estimated it would cost $200,000 per year. So in order to give his users what they wanted, he started a crowdfunding campaign to get it done.

Believing in what Tauberer was doing, 900 backers helped support the site, exceeding its crowdfunding goal of $35,000 and raised $36,063. That money went toward hiring a full-time researcher for six-months to add more information about bills to GovTrack, office space and other expenses.

Journalists, citizens and political insiders use GovTrack.us to monitor the every day dealings at the Capitol.

While Tauberer says he spends an enormous amount of time advocating for government transparency in various forms, he does consider some of what he does journalism.

However, he clarifies that most of what he does would not be considered traditional journalism and is careful not to ‘co-opt’ the term.

“In so far as GovTrack informs Americans about current events, and presents context, even if algorithmically, I think that’s journalism. Where we’re able to write original content, in particular summaries of legislation, then it falls into traditional journalism, and I maintain very high journalistic standards for those summaries,” he said.

About 30,000 people use GovTrack each day, according to Tauberer. During the 45-day period when the campaign was up, about 750,000 individuals used GovTrack. Those users made up at most about $5,000 of the funds raised on Kickstarter.

“I know people want to know what’s happening in Congress because people have been using GovTrack for a decade. However, they don’t particularly want to pay to know. Which, to be fair, it perfectly rational,” he said.

Tauberer said he was disappointed that more funds were not raised through the campaign.

Separately from GovTrack.us, he is starting a new venture site, called if.then.fund, which will be a platform for political crowdfunding.

Jenna V. Loceff contributed to this report.

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Robert Moreno
Robert is a full-time reporter for the Chula Vista Star-News covering local government and education beats and writing human interest stories. He is a believer in nonprofit journalism.

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