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Think tank focused on government transparency is closing

The Center for Effective Government, a liberal think tank with a three-decade legacy in Washington, D.C.'s good government community, is shutting down.

The group quietly started winding down its operations March 4, temporarily taking its website offline. Experts on regulatory policy, taxes and open government are settling into new roles at nonprofits around the city, with an official announcement coming in the next few weeks.

"We made the decision at the beginning of the year, after looking at the landscape and everything, and decided it would be best for us to wind the organization down," Brian Gumm, a CEG senior writer and policy analyst, told Greenwire on Friday.

Leaders based their judgment on funding, Gumm said.

Transparency advocate Gary Bass founded the organization, formerly known as OMB Watch, in 1983 to bring sunshine to the secretive Office of Management and Budget.

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For transparency advocates, the loss of CEG signifies the broader challenges nonprofit advocacy groups face as they seek to influence policymaking.

"I think that it is extremely difficult in the current environment to do things that are not perceived as front-page issues," said Rena Steinzor, one of the founders of the Center for Progressive Reform.

"What the Center for Effective Government did so well for so long was looking at how relatively detailed and nuanced policies within the government ... were hurting everyday people."

The left-leaning group focused on budget and taxation issues and the federal rulemaking process. It pushed back against the strong anti-regulatory agenda that conservatives and business interests often promote.

Bass led the organization during five presidential administrations and was a frequent visitor to the White House during President Obama's first term.

In November 2008, Bass and his staff presented recommendations on transparency and improving the regulatory process to Obama's transition team and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

In 2010, Bass announced he was departing to lead the Bauman Foundation, a nonprofit group that operates out of the same S Street Northwest building as CEG. The foundation awards between $5 million and $6 million in grants each year to open government, environmental and public health advocacy projects.

"I have learned there comes a time when an organization's founder needs to move on in order to strengthen the very organization the founder loves," Bass said at the time.

Katherine McFate, a Ford Foundation program officer and national expert on government accountability, took the helm after Bass' departure.

Under McFate's leadership, the organization continued to churn out influential work. It reinvigorated the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, an alliance that included environmental and public health groups, and advocated for stronger federal rules and better enforcement.

CEG produced two widely cited reports even after leaders decided to dissolve the organization, including an analysis showing minorities and poor people are far more likely to live near the highest-risk chemical plants (Greenwire, Jan. 18).

"These things are critically important," said Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor.

'Sign of the times'

Steinzor, who has written extensively on efforts to reinvent environmental regulation, said the "dry, behind-the-scenes" work scholars and researchers do can be expensive. Still, their effort has been successful at holding off efforts to "gut" basic laws, like the Clean Air Act.

"The problem is that if we're not careful, we could end up leaving no firewall, no safeguard to make sure those don't get lost," she said.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, said seeing a peer organization sign off is "more than sad -- it is also a sign of the times."

"In the heyday of OMB Watch and other good government groups, there was a much more dynamic political environment and a much greater openness to creative policy ideas," Aftergood said in an interview.

"Much, if not all, of that dynamism has gone away and has been replaced by party line polarization. What that means in practice is much less appetite or even tolerance for creative policy solutions. Instead, there's just a stubborn tug of war over which side is going to emerge victorious," he said.

Electoral politics also threaten the funding model for some nonprofits. With the 2016 presidential election, big donors are paying less attention to Congress and advocacy. There's a lack of patience for stalemate inside the Beltway, Steinzor suggested, and attention has shifted to the states.

CEG remains "highly committed to making sure that the work and legacy" of the center lives on, Gumm said. That includes staff transitions, with experts from the 20-person office starting new jobs.

Sean Moulton, who did CEG's open government work for 13 years, last year transitioned to the Project on Government Oversight. He serves as the Open Government Program manager, overseeing the effort to develop a "blueprint" the next president can use to build a more open and accountable administration.

Michell McIntyre, formerly outreach manager for CEG, continues to collaborate with the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards.

Katie Weatherford joined the Center for Progressive Reform as a workers' rights policy analyst, after more than two years as a regulatory policy analyst at CEG.

Amanda Starbuck, who wrote about toxic chemicals and fracking for CEG, started a new job with Food & Water Watch.

Gumm said CEG Web materials would be archived. The physical office will cease to exist after the group's not-yet-determined dissolution date.

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