5 Policies That States Are Using to Curb Gun Violence, With Encouraging Results

On average, nearly 34,000 people are killed in the U.S. each year due to gun homicide, suicide or accidents, with another 81,000 who are shot but survive. But zeroing in on the causes of gun violence, in order to thwart them, is no easy task. It’s not just about a glut of available firearms or how easy it is to obtain one. As the Center for American Progress pointed out in its 2016 Progress Index, there is a connected web of social and economic issues that can impact rates of violence in a community — persistent poverty and a lack of employment, to name a few.
That’s led several communities to take novel approaches to curb the bloodshed, either by expanding existing federal law or implementing new ideas altogether. Below, five policies put in place by cities and states around the country whose smart governance on guns is changing the landscape for the better.


Federal law already requires licensed firearms dealers to perform criminal background checks on prospective buyers. But unlicensed private sellers — who are responsible for about 40 percent of all gun sales in “no questions asked” transactions — are not legally bound to follow the same rules.
Since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., six states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oregon and Washington) have successfully closed this gap by passing and implementing these so-called universal background checks on every sale and transfer within their borders (including those purchased at gun shows and online) for all classes of firearms, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Nevada could soon be the seventh, but the state is currently undergoing a procedural dispute over the implementation of the measure.


Research has repeatedly shown a lethal link between domestic violence and gun violence in the U.S. In 2011, nearly two-thirds of women who were murdered were shot and killed by their intimate partners. “It’s a huge epidemic,” says Hannah Shearer, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Under federal law, people convicted of a felony or domestic abuse cannot buy or own a gun. But there are some limitations to that measure, like defining a domestic abuser only as a spouse. To protect more women, some states, including six in 2017 alone, have strengthened federal law by expanding that definition to also encompass former dating partners.


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requires a federal license for those in the business of selling guns. But the law doesn’t mandate that dealers perform background checks on their employees, says Avery Gardiner, co-president at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “They also don’t train them to recognize signs of illegal gun trafficking, nor is a gun store even required to lock up its inventory at night,” she says.
In response, 15 states, along with Washington, D.C., have made state-issued licenses mandatory for gun dealers. Additionally, six states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington — now require gun stores to do background checks on employees.

Six states now require firearm dealers to perform background checks on their employees.


“Sometimes gun deaths in cities that are ethnically diverse get overlooked,” Shearer says, adding that instead, there’s a tendency to focus on mass shootings and rare events. But the reality is that deaths by guns happen every day across the country.
The Law Center published a report last year on promising approaches being implemented nationwide to reduce urban gun violence. One such city that’s seen success: Richmond, Calif.
In 2007, the Bay Area city was considered one of the country’s most dangerous. So officials there enacted intervention programs and policy reforms in response. They created a new agency, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), to treat violence as a communicable disease and connected vulnerable residents to social services. As ONS’s director DeVone Boggan, a 2015 NationSwell AllStar, described the agency’s mission: “You’ve got to understand the nature of [violence], and you’ve got to understand the drivers of it” in order to combat it.
The results were impressive, with homicides in Richmond dipping by 2010. Three years later the city saw its murder rate fall from more than 40 homicides a year to 16, its lowest number in more than three decades.


A measure designed to keep guns away from people perceived at risk of harming themselves or others allows police, and sometimes family members, to ask the courts to intervene. Provided with enough evidence, a judge might temporarily deny a person’s access to guns if he or she is deemed to be a significant danger.
Connecticut was the first state to enact a version of this order in 1999, followed later by Indiana, California and Washington State. Others, including Oregon, are considering adopting similar bills. In 2016, researchers from Duke University led a study that found a measurable reduction in Connecticut’s suicide rate as a result of its risk-warrant policy.
“These laws have a huge potential for saving lives,” Shearer says, “because family members often notice warning signs that somebody is suicidal or homicidal before something really bad happens.”
Homepage photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
Continue reading “5 Policies That States Are Using to Curb Gun Violence, With Encouraging Results”

The History of the Leaked Climate Report

After a draft copy of the 2017 Climate Assessment Report leaked recently, people are left wondering exactly what it is and why it’s important.


Under the Global Change Research Act of 1990, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, an inter-governmental agency, is required to research and produce a report that shows the impact of global climate change. The study is conducted by hundreds of scientists and reviewed by multiple government agencies, including NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Despite federal policy mandating an assessment to be released every four years, only three have been issued: once under President Bill Clinton in 2000 and twice under President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2014. (President George W. Bush’s administration was sued for delaying the report’s release.)
There’s speculation whether or not the current White House will sign off on the report’s official release (which is scheduled for the fall), given the Trump administration’s pullback from the Paris climate accord and its push to increase fossil fuel production.
The leaked version of the 2017 report, which was first published by the New York Times, repeats similar warnings of increased greenhouse gas emissions as earlier assessments. But it also uses extremely blunt language regarding the cause, stating that humans are “extremely likely” to be the dominant producers of this pollution.
And according to the latest report, global temperatures have risen 1.2 degrees, in the past 30 years — human involvement accounting for at least 1.1 degrees of that increase.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has publicly said that he does not think carbon emissions cause climate change, writing in the National Review that, “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
Regardless of political actions or ideologies on global climate change, these reports are accepted by the scientific community as a whole and are used to inform policymakers.


All issuances of the climate report have been in consensus: Global greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures have increased dramatically in the past century, due in large part to humans burning fossil fuels.
“The human impact on [global warming] is clear,” states the 2000 analysis — the first published report. “[Increased carbon emissions] resulted from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, and the destruction of forests around the world to provide space for agriculture and other human activities.”
The initial report gave warning that U.S. temperatures would rise by up to 9 degrees within the next 100 years if greenhouse gas emissions weren’t curbed.
The 2009 report echoed the same language, stating that human involvement was the largest contributor, but its findings were more dire as carbon emissions continued to rise during the years of the Bush administration. That report concluded that there could be an increase of up to 11 degrees by 2100.
By 2014, when the most recent report was officially published, the evidence was clear to scientists that action needed to be taken, as authors of the report found that certain areas of the U.S., specifically within America’s heartland, were going to experience 2 to 4 degree increases in temperature over the next few decades.


The Obama administration seemingly worked to make climate change policy its primary legacy. In 2009, after the second climate report was released, Obama pledged to reduce the U.S.’s carbon emissions by 2020 and reduce its carbon emissions levels 17 percent below 2005 levels.
Four years later, when the third climate report was under consideration by Obama, the Executive Office of the President released a broad action plan aimed at specifically cutting carbon emissions.
These reactions to the climate reports were dramatically different to actions taken by President Bush. That administration hastily exited the Kyoto Protocol (a global climate change treaty), partnered with Exxon-Mobil‘s leaders to craft U.S. climate change policy and cast doubt among the public that humans were to blame for global climate change.
In contrast, polls conducted during the past three years reveal that more Americans believe humans are to blame for climate change. Furthermore, a March 2017 Gallup poll found that more than 70 percent support alternative energy over traditional fossil fuels.
Which means that Americans are likely to continue curbing greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of whether or not the climate assessment report receives an official stamp of approval.
MORE: Can the U.S. Reduce Its Carbon Emissions?

Meet the Privacy Expert on a Mission to Protect Your Digital Footprint

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a new breed of nationalism took root that trained its attention on the foreigners among us. In response, the federal government adopted a set of strict policies and legislation that tracked immigrants in general and Muslim communities in particular.
“I felt like the whole country was in turmoil and at risk of abandoning its values for a false sense of security,” says Tim Sparapani, an expert in digital privacy and a NationSwell Council member. “I was always taught at moments like that you don’t look away; you get involved.”
So Sparapani did, finding his passion for social impact and public service within those tumultuous days. He joined the American Civil Liberties Union as senior legislative counsel and later helped establish Facebook’s presence in Washington as its first director of public policy. These days, the D.C.-based Sparapani leads SPQR Strategies, which he founded in 2011 as a consulting firm focused on online and digital data privacy.
It was at the ACLU that Sparapani gained his reputation as a fierce advocate for individual privacy, becoming a protector against what he says was unconstitutional policies. That included the Real ID Act of 2005, a significant piece of 9/11 legislation introduced and championed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), which required people who applied for a driver’s license or a government ID to produce five types of identification to prove their identity, such as a social security number, birth certificate, proof of citizenship and home address, and a mortgage statement or utility bill.
Democrats and the ACLU, along with moderate Republicans and a handful of libertarian organizations like the CATO Institute, thought the statute was “deeply unconstitutional,” says Sparapani. “Once you pulled back the layers, you saw it was based on nativism and ugly xenophobia.”
After the bill passed, Sparapani and his team at the ACLU spearheaded a campaign that urged states to resist the federal regulations. They made their push to the public by highlighting how the new driver’s licenses mandated under the bill — which would have electronic chips that stored a person’s name, address, birth date and social security number — were prone to identity theft, could be used to track individuals’ travel, and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
“We were able to get dozens of states to independently enact legislation resisting the federal statute. That hasn’t happened since the Civil War,” Sparapani says. “It was our strategy to have state-by-state resistance to something that was tremendous overreach.”
Though the Real ID Act is still enshrined in federal law and, starting next year, will bar certain state IDs from being used to fly or gain access to federal buildings, Sparapani credits the campaign as his “a-ha moment,” when he realized there was a need to protect all U.S. residents’ privacy, especially from a government that he saw as wielding too much power.
“There was this new opportunity in the computer-database era for the government to exercise control over people in all sorts of nefarious ways by using technology for ill,” Sparapani says, adding that he’d like to see more people take up the cause for privacy rights online. “It’s kind of up to all of us to decide the rules for how we use technology as a society and put limits on it that are aligned with our constitutional values.”


Tim Sparapani is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of SPQR Strategies, a consulting firm that works with startups, established companies, and consumer and privacy advocates on the policy challenges raised by emerging technologies.

A Washington Insider’s Advice for the New Administration

President Obama confronted a number of foreign policy issues during his two terms in office: a covert mission to kill Osama bin Laden; the expansion of settlements in Israel; a failure to curb Russian aggression in Crimea; military strikes in Libya; a red line and refugee crisis in Syria; the rise of the Islamic State; the reopening of relations with Cuba; and a nuclear deal with Iran. Behind the scenes, NationSwell Council member Matt Spence worked on many of these issues in the White House’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2012 and as head of Middle East policy in the Defense Department from 2012 to 2015. As Donald J. Trump readies to be sworn as president this week, NationSwell spoke to Spence, now a partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a fellow at Stanford, about the world the next commander-in-chief will face.

How did you get interested in international policy? Why did these big global issues matter to you personally?
In some sense, it’s unusual. I grew up in Southern California and lived in the same house my entire life. I’d never been out of the country until college. But when I was born, my father was in the Army reserves, and I remember him being deployed to Korea in preparation for the first Gulf War. My mom was the first in her family to be born in the United States; her grandparents and two uncles had come here very suddenly during World War II when the Nazis took over. So, in the background, there was a strong interest in international issues. I remember my dad reading a lot of military history and international affairs when I was growing up, and I was just fascinated.

You’ve credited your first White House role to a doctorate in international relations and “a fair amount of luck.” Why did you choose to join the Obama campaign in 2008?
I got very excited about Barack Obama when he was a candidate after reading a speech he gave in 2007 to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He talked about how the way to keep America safe was by pursuing smart policy and supporting development throughout the world. I’d written my doctoral dissertation at Oxford about the impact of democratization on developing the rule of law and what America could do to support that in Russia and the former Soviet Union. I was really struck that the danger in these societies was not that they’re aggressive, but that they were so weak and broken. I remember Obama at the time talking about how a starving child in the Middle East or Africa is as much a threat to the United States over the long term as the spread of weapons of mass destruction. I think we’ve seen that now with broken states, refugees, the rise of totally ungoverned spaces. Obama got that at a real visceral level, and he was saying this, by the way, when he’d only been a senator for a very short time.

Looking back on your time in the White House, what was the greatest test of your resolve?
I started at the White House on the first day after the inauguration, and I was just working all the time. I was at my desk by 6:30 or 7 in the morning, and I would leave around 10:30 or 11, as one of the last people leaving the West Wing. There is so much that is happening at the same time; the sheer bandwidth of the diverse issues is just mind-blowing. At the beginning of an administration, one of the most valuable qualities is just stamina to come in and work those types of hours. But the key, in the middle of all that, is to try to think about how to keep your head above water. What do you actually want to be doing? How do you think about history?


How did you maintain perspective amidst all the pressure?
I got a great piece of advice from my boss at the time, the national security adviser. He said, “Always make time to read history.” In the middle of these 14-hour days, I read the memoirs of past national security advisers, secretaries of state and other figures. I remember finding a passage in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s memoir from when, as Carter’s national security adviser, they dealt with the Iranian revolution. I gave it to the national security adviser as we were thinking through the protests surrounding Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, in Tahrir Square. You don’t want to overgeneralize from history: Those were very different events in very different historical times. But there’s something humbling to think through the changes that occurred decades before. These issues appear very unique; everything looks new to you, in a sense. Essentially, how do you try to learn from your mistakes before you make them?

You had the chance to travel with and brief President Obama. What did you learn from him about leadership?
He has an amazing sense of priorities. Many times, sitting in the Situation Room, he would say very explicitly, “Look, this is a presidential-level decision. I’ve made my decision. You guys go execute and figure it out.” He was very clear on which issues rose to his level that he needed to handle and which he could delegate, which is incredibly important for an executive. There’s a lot of noise in national security or business decisions or running an organization. Given this huge glut coming at you, what are the key things you really need to pay attention to?

During your tenure at the Defense Department, what was the most important development that will shape the future of the Middle East?
When you ask anyone about the Middle East, they picture conflict, chaos, danger. We have to try to think about opportunities. We’re facing a real time of American isolationism. Americans don’t feel that the Middle East is unimportant, but they throw their hands up and wonder if there’s anything we can do about it. Can we maintain leadership without having tens of thousands of troops in the region that most Americans don’t really support?

I remember going to Jordan to lead defense talks with the government. We were in the process of providing a huge amount of military assistance, because they share a border with Syria and Iraq, they had a very serious refugee crisis and they were facing threats from neighbors. A senior member told me, “We deeply appreciate the military assistance that you’ve given us, and we need it. But what we need even more is millions of jobs.” In a sense, it sounds cliché, but as a representative of the most powerful military in the history of the world in a region that’s deeply hungry for security, these countries were thinking about how to educate and employ this next generation. When you spend your days thinking about war planning, that wasn’t what I expected. The most valuable export we have is not from these $750 billion defense budgets, but economic opportunity and entrepreneurship.

What piece of advice would you give to the incoming Trump administration?
Listen and surround yourself with good people who are dedicated, know what they’re doing and will be thoughtful about their role. Right now, there really is an opportunity to show what he’s going to do to govern, and he should show he’s going to govern in a very different way than he campaigned. He said he’s going to do that, and just match the work now.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

Go Inside the Mission That’s Bringing the Federal Government into the Digital Age

Eight years after President Barack Obama promised to change the way Washington does business, there’s not much evidence of a new era of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. His administration, however, has brought an antiquated, disjointed and inflexible bureaucratic system into the tech age. With a team of 153 people working across agencies, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) retooled and modernized online applications for student loans, veteran’s healthcare and immigration visas. NationSwell spoke with Haley Van Dyck, a San Francisco native who co-founded the initiative, about running the federal government’s in-house startup.

The President asked you personally to change the government’s online systems. Why did you say yes?
Well, the president is a pretty hard guy to say no to! Honestly, why I’m here is because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else right now. Government is, I think, an overlooked platform for creating change in people’s lives. When you take a platform the size and scale of the United States government and you combine it with the transformative power of technology to create change, it can be a force multiplier for good.

What specifically are you integrating into government operations?
Our team is focused on how we can bring in the best technology talent across the country and pair it with the innovators in government to focus more on the underlying systems. There are services that government provides every single day that are utterly life changing for Americans, and whatever we can do to bring what Silicon Valley has learned about providing planetary-scale digital services that work into services that are in desperate need of upgrades is an incredibly appealing mission.

The federal government currently spends $86 billion on IT projects, but nearly all these projects go over budget or miss deadlines. Two out of every five are shut down. What’s getting in the way?
There are a lot of factors that go into it, so there’s no easy answer. Government still builds software the same way it builds battleships: very expensive, long planning cycles. That is simply not the way that Silicon Valley and the tech industry writ large has become one of the most innovative sectors, because it’s found ways to take very, very large projects and break them up into smaller pieces where they’re more approachable and [easier to] deliver results on a much faster, much less risky surface area. I think that is one of the big problems of government — it’s structured to do these large projects, and that’s what it continues to do.

Another problem we run into is just outdated technology. You will still find COBOL [a 1959 computer programming language] alive and well in parts of the United States government, because doing these kinds of technology upgrades are hard and complicated and challenging, and it takes a lot of work. So those two — the mentality as well as the existing technology — combine together make a very, very hard problem to solve. That’s basically what our team is targeting, right?

The rollout of healthcare.gov, by anyone’s assessment, was a logistical disaster and a political nightmare. Did that failure mark a turning point in how the government does its business?
There was obviously a ton of work underway long before healthcare.gov happened to solve this problem. But absolutely, I do think healthcare.gov was an incredibly critical turning point in two big ways. The first and most important one is that the rescue effort of healthcare.gov was one of the first times that many people with technology and engineering backgrounds were able to see how their skill-sets could truly help benefit a large number of their fellow Americans. It really shone a light onto the pathway for public service. The second way in which it was a defining moment was internally across government (for everyone from the White House down) it showed that the status quo right now is the riskiest option. The way the government goes about building software today is not successful and needed to change. That was a critical piece of energy and momentum that we needed to break the inertia and look at the problem from a different perspective.

Tell us a little bit about your first project with “boots on the ground,” where a team streamlined the transfer of health records from the Department of Defense to the Veterans Administration. Why start with such a huge bureaucracy?
If we were filtering for where the easy problems were, we wouldn’t have a ton of business. We ended up very excited and eager to work with the VA because we believe that veterans deserve a world-class experience when applying for the benefits after all they’ve done in service of their country. So it was an incredibly motivating mission.

Where does that project stand now?
We’re really excited because the team is making a ton of traction even in one of the largest, most entrenched bureaucracies in government. We’ve found incredible partners and supporters inside the VA who are really doing the heavy lifting and the hard work of creating culture change inside the agency, as they’re looking at how to improve services for veterans from all angles. The team is focused on two areas. First, how do we improve the experience for the veterans? Right now there are hundreds of websites, all intending to help veterans get access to their benefits. The work being done is streamlining all those service offerings and websites into a single place, where veterans can get better information and access to the benefits. Vets.gov is the new website that we’re building. It’s in beta and it’s launched for education and health benefits, and we continue to add services to it regularly.

The second big areas we spend a lot of time working is on the tools for the dedicated civil servants inside the VA to make it as easy as possible for them to complete their job of providing services to the vets. We just launched a product we’re excited about called Caseflow, which was designed with adjudicators inside the VA. It’s focused on streamlining and improving application processing. We realize that by helping upgrade the outdated systems that a lot of employees were using, we’re able to help the vets themselves.

In what ways is USDS similar to your run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley tech startup? And in what ways would you notice a difference?
We’re in incredible scrappy, bootstrap office spaces, with people running around in jeans, Post-It notes everywhere, tons of white boards and big discussions happening left and right. In many ways it looks and feels very, very similar to many of the startups you see across the country. But a couple of ways that it’s different, we’re actually quite proud of. For example, we have a very diverse team and are over 50 percent women, which I think makes different from a lot of companies in the Valley.

You’ve mentioned that USDS is easing arduous applications and centralizing contact information in one website. How does that work actually benefit the most vulnerable Americans?
I don’t want to pontificate too much on the status of our tech industry, but as you see various tech companies create change across the industry, they’re simplifying and improving the lives of Americans and really taking out a lot of the biggest inconveniences that we have. It is absolutely imperative that our government makes that same jump to providing services the same way that the rest of the industry does. The internet is obviously a huge conduit for that. In order to make sure that divide doesn’t become larger, between the people who are benefiting from the tech revolution and those who aren’t, government should make sure that we are also modernizing our services for the primary platform where people are looking to do business and communicate.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s the only channel. We, as the government, do not have the luxury of segmenting our audiences the way that most companies do. We can’t just care about people on the internet. We have to care about those who don’t have access. But by the work we’re doing through actual user-centered design and modern technology stacks, we are able to do things like design for mobile, which is also addressing a huge percentage of Americans who now have access to internet only through smartphones and not through broadband. So I think that it’s an incredibly important part of the conversation, but it’s also not the entire conversation.

MORE: This Is a Smart, Nonpartisan Way to Improve Local Government

Questioning How Society Is Constructed Is the Best Way to Enact Change

As a staff member working for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the mid 2000s, Tomicah Tillemann reported to now-Vice President Joe Biden and worked extensively with, he says with a chuckle, “a new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.”
Inspired by successful policy work, Tillemann remained in government, serving as Secretary Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter (once going 100 hours without sleep in order to perfect a speech) and later, as her senior adviser. That work informed Tillemann’s current position as director of the Bretton Woods II initiative at New America, a new model of investing that combines the public and private sectors and technology to further social impact causes worldwide.
NationSwell sat down with Tillemann at New America’s minimalist offices in Washington, D.C., just blocks from the White House, to discuss the importance of collaboration and why appealing to logic isn’t always successful.
Is there an innovation in your field that you’re particularly excited about right now?
In the work we’re doing right now at the Bretton Woods II initiative, we started from the realization that we’re living in a world with a huge quantum of capital and problems. We don’t do enough connecting the two, and we have yet to develop a business model that allows us to move resources to solve big global challenges. What we have recognized is that with good data and good analytics, you can provide big asset holders with the information they need to see how targeted investments in social impact and development can address the root causes of the volatility that eat away at their profits.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received on leadership?
If you can build a community that is passionately committed to the cause that you are trying to advance, then your job as a leader becomes immeasurably easier. What I’ve tried to do in my work in the private and public sectors and now straddling the two is to bring together individuals that share a common commitment to the work that we are seeking to advance. At that point, I can kind of step aside and get out of the way and watch them do incredible things.
In our current efforts, we are fortunate to have partnered with some of the leading foundations and many of the largest financial institutions in the world. When you put these guys together, provide some vision and serve as a catalyst for their collaboration, they’re going to do spectacular things. The great challenge of leadership is to deliver a vision that can appeal to people who wouldn’t otherwise work together. If you can provide that, then you’ve got it made as a leader.
What inspires you?
My grandfather came to the U.S. as a penniless Holocaust survivor. He arrived with $7 and a salami in his pocket, and his salami was confiscated at customs. Through a lot of hard work and education, he eventually served the United States in the Congress for 30 years and became chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I was able to grow up learning at his feet; I spent virtually every summer in Washington, D.C., with him. The great benefit of that was seeing his commitment to improving the state of the world. He recognized what could happen if you didn’t; he’d seen the evil that could be unleashed when people looked the other direction.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you started working in Washington, D.C., but didn’t?
In so much of what we do in Washington and certainly the work we do trying to mobilize the world’s largest asset holders to invest in social impact, we’re trying to change behavior. Part of that is based in logic, but a lot of it goes beyond that. We tend to focus a lot of time and energy on logic, and it’s necessary but it’s not sufficient. In order to do everything else, you need to build communities, relationships and get very good at leveraging different centers of power. Ultimately, you can have the best case in the world, but unless you know how to speak to people through those other channels, you’re probably not going to do what you set out to accomplish.
What is your idea of a perfect day?
My most important job is dad to five amazing kids. Our oldest is 10 and our youngest is 16 months. My happiest days involve them. We go to the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest every summer, and if we go out and catch some crabs, read some books together and spend some time on the beach — that’s real tough to beat. It’s a reminder of why you do everything else that you do.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Definitely my five little people, and they’re in a class by themselves. Beyond that, I hope to someday say that my proudest accomplishment is leaving them a world that’s materially better than it would’ve been if I hadn’t engaged in these issues.
What is something that people don’t know about you but should?
I was born in the car on the way to the hospital. My mother was a very brave woman.
What is your all-time favorite book?
I really like Thomas More’s “Utopia,” which is a great exercise in how to reenvision and reimagine a society. The questioning that is evident in that book and the reexamination of some of the fundamental principles that you assume that need to undergird our civilization is something that we need more of. I think we can benefit from constantly looking at the way our society is constructed and asking, “Do things really need to be built as they are?” To the extent that we can make that part of our constant conversation in our heads, we can do good things.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Easy Way to Find Out If Your Elected Officials’ Votes Are Biased

Making the decisions about the welfare our country are 435 representatives and 100 senators in Washington, D.C. Their responsibility is a hefty one, but so is ours when choosing the best one while voting.
At times, however, it seems almost impossible to keep tabs on our own elected officials, let along 535 of them. But with one click of a computer, that’s all about to change.
There’s a new browser plug-in called Greenhouse, and it’s exposing all the money that’s flowing into politicians’ campaigns.
Invented by 16-year old Nick Rubin, Greenhouse’s motto is “Some are red, Some are blue, All are green.” And that’s the purpose of this browser plug-in, to provide an accurate breakdown of politicians’ campaign contributions.
So how did a teenager become an aficionado of political campaign donations? Well, it all started when Rubin was giving a presentation on corporate personhood in the seventh grade. While doing research, he found that the sources of income for Congress members aren’t readily available.
Rubin then began learning how to code, and he decided to combine his two great passions – politics and coding – into one. From that, Greenhouse emerged.
The plug-in’s name is a play on words: Green for the color of money and house for the two houses of Congress. For Rubin, it’s also a metaphor for the purpose of his app.
“The name also implies transparency,” Rubin tells Vice. “Greenhouses are see through and they are built to help things thrive.”
Using Greenhouse is easier than, well, growing a plant. Once the plug-in is downloaded, the name of every politician will be highlighted in any article you’re reading. All you have to do is hover over the name and a little box will appear containing detailed contribution information‚ including amounts and where the money come from. This way, when your representative is supporting a bill, you can see if there’s money talking and swaying the vote.
All of the information comes from the 2012 election data, which was the last full election cycle. With the completion of the 2014 elections, Rubin plans to update the app to include those numbers. In the meantime, it’s possible to view 2014 data now by clicking on the name of the politician at the top of the window or the Opensecrets.org link in the pop-up.
Right now, Greenhouse is available for Chrome, Firefox and Safari browsers, and it’s completely free. That’s because for Rubin, accessibility is the most important thing.
“That’s exactly why I designed Greenhouse with simplicity in mind, so that everyone — even kids — are able to understand it,” Rubin says. “Easy access to data empowers voters to make better decisions. Once people are informed, they will reject elected officials who are motived by money instead of principles.”
We certainly can hope, right?
MORE: Can Cloud Technology Improve the Relationship Between City Officials and Residents?

America Claims to be the Land of Opportunity. But Do The Numbers Support that Moniker?

It seems that whenever the federal government releases a new statistical report providing insight into the state of our country, the numbers feel negative. Some indicate the number of people living in poverty while others detail the federal deficit.
However, one man is looking to change this, or at least supplement it, with the addition of so-called “social mobility” statistics.  With this measure, the U.S. would be able to quantify something it has always claimed to be the land of: opportunity.
And that’s exactly what Richard Reeves want to call this government department: the Office of Opportunity. Reeves is a fellow in economic studies and the policy director for the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.
How would social mobility be measured? Well, the government has a few options available. One idea is to analyze the proportion of children born in lower quintiles of the income ladder who move to the top two. Another option is to look at high school graduation rates of students with a GPA of 2.5 and higher. Or the government could use the number of four-year olds in preschool, the number of 25- to 49-year olds who work or the number of births within marriages.
All of these numbers would provide insight into the social mobility stats of the country. The government could also look to the U.K. and New Zealand for help in crafting it. These two countries already have similar programs established, such as the U.K., which uses 17 indicators to track long-term mobility.
Ultimately, Reeves hopes to create a dashboard of indicators that can be analyzed yearly in an annual report. This data, in turn, would help the government create informed polices.
The Office of Opportunity would function similarly to the Congressional Budget Office. It would be small and independent, making it a reliable and viable office that both Republicans and Democrats can trust. Reeves estimates that it would cost about $10 million a year to operate.
While, the federal government has yet to display serious interest in its creation, some cities and states, like Colorado, are considering the idea. And that may be the best thing — start local and build up.
According to Reeves, all that is left is for the government to decide if it is worth it.
“Adopting an official mobility measure is unlikely to require vast new data collection — though some investments would need to be made,” he writes in his Brookings proposal. “It’s more of a question of deciding mobility is worth measuring and promoting.”
So, what do you think – is it?
MORE: Minnesota’s Bold Move to Hire More Employees with Disabilities

The Competition for Disaster Relief Funds Heats Up

When you think of disaster relief, the words that probably come to mind are EMTs and paramedics, FEMA, and the Red Cross.
But for President Obama, it’s competition, resiliency, and natural disasters. These words — together — form his new plan to help with disaster relief.
While that may sound a bit odd, it encourages state and local governments to compete for natural disaster relief funds from the federal government. With $1 billion at stake, Obama challenged communities to create sustainable plans to rebuild and reboot their communities.
With the National Climate Assessment’s report released last month detailing the imminence of climate change, Obama’s plan also comes with the hope of finding ways to combat it. Therefore, competing states should come up with proposals that involve innovative local resilience projects, policy changes, and adaptive plans for extreme weather and climate change.
State and local communities that were declared natural disaster areas between 2011 and 2013 will be eligible for $820 million worth of grants. States hit by Hurricane Sandy will have the opportunity to compete for an additional $180 million. Applicants are required to detail how the proposed action and the disaster are linked.
Winners will receive cash through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Block Grant. Already, a few winners have been named for the Hurricane Sandy competition. Here, a few of the approved projects.
The Big U in New York will protect Manhattan (West 57th Street to The Battery to East 42nd Street) from floods and storm water through the creation of a protective system. This part of the city is low-lying and culturally important, and the project will have environmental and social benefits as well.
Another is the New Meadowlands: Productive City and Regional Park, which will combine transportation, ecology, and development to connect and rebuild the swampy area between New Jersey and New York.
The Jersey Shore will also receive some funding with a focus on repairing the beaches and rejuvenating the communities in the area.
For a listing and description of the rest of the approved projects, click here.
With all of the natural disasters that have occurred recently, President Obama’s competition will hopefully encourage states and local governments to plan and prepare to prevent such devastating effects from occurring in the future — or at least, lessen their impact.
MORE: A National Effort to Boost Local Resources

EPA Issues an Innovative Challenge

Who says that government agencies don’t get innovative? The Environmental Protection Agency has partnered with the Agriculture Department to issue a challenge to creative problem solvers and entrepreneurs: Find would-be waste in the food chain, and re-direct it to feed America’s hungry and undernourished people. Food makes up a large portion of the nation’s landfills, and decomposition is a major contributor to climate change. Rather than react with bureaucratic subcommittees and lots of red tape, the Food Waste Challenge invites industrial leaders and universities, and even sports and entertainment businesses, to find ways to solve waste and hunger problems at the same time.