Francis Maude, Minister of the Cabinet in the United Kingdom, was at the World Bank recently talking about transparency in the UK. He said it best when he described the classic road of transparency: “Politicians think transparency is a great platform to run on for elections. Politicians think transparency is a great idea once elected because it gives them the opportunity to expose their predecessors. After about a year, transparency seems doesn’t seem like such a great idea anymore because it means politicians then have to expose themselves.”
The benefits of and subsequent concerns with transparency in the UK are not unlike those in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region or anywhere else for that matter. The UK’s transparency agenda was driven by its understanding of the social, political and economic dividends that could derive from this commitment. (How the last piece of the commitment, self exposure, operates best is of course a work in progress). Arab Spring protesters have called for citizen voice, accountability, and jobs. Transparency and access to information can very well serve all three.
Access to information (or lack thereof) is a huge social barrier. It creates inequity and lack of accountability. Improving transparency can give room for citizens to voice what can or should be done within their community. It also makes politicians accountable on a day-to-day basis, not just at election time. If used properly, the economic benefit of releasing information that the government collects on a regular basis can increase efficiency (savings) on service delivery and empower individuals to make innovative products (like mobile phone apps for live public transportation updates) creating jobs and wealth.
The quality and privacy are concerns encountered by the UK and are also most relevant for MENA. Minister Maude’s advice is essentially, put the information out there and the exposure and scrutiny of the public will be incentive enough to improve the quality of information. Additionally, while privacy is a concern for citizens who want transparency but don’t know what it means for them, government should tread carefully on how narrow the micro information should be, but not allow this to be an issue that supersedes access.
Two differences that struck me in thinking about the relevance of the UK experience in transparency to that of the MENA region were on the demand and supply side of information. On the supply side, it seemed relatively easy to get the UK government on board with the initiative. The Prime Minister championed the transparency reform by issuing a letter of commitments the government was to abide by and the government complied. I feel there may be more political barriers in MENA governments, especially since reforms de facto and de jure are not necessarily in sync. While it may not be as easy as in the UK, I believe that with the right political champion and a comprehensive freedom of information legislation, access to information can be realized.
On the demand side, Minister Maude didn’t feel CSOs would have any problems making use of the information provided. CSOs in the MENA region may need some training on how to exploit the data that would be available. This may be an area that the World Bank and other donors could focus on so that social, political, and economic dividends can be maximized.