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Transparency Delayed, Transparency Denied?

Antonio Lambino's picture

Is transparency delayed, transparency denied? How about when disasters, such typhoons or earthquakes, strike? Should transparency and citizen access to information as regards the disbursement of calamity funds be considered a priority? Or should transparency temporarily take a back seat during disasters with all efforts going into emergency response?

Local government executives – mayors and governors -- from various parts of the Philippines debated these questions (among many others) during a multi-stakeholder learning event on good governance in Manila last week. Jointly organized by the Ateneo School of Government, Asian Institute of Management, and the World Bank’s Philippine Country Office, Panibagong Paraan (A New Way) for Good Governance brought together local government and civil society leaders, information specialists on development, and members of the international development community.

To me, one of the most electrifying sessions was one on transparency and social accountability. Due to the recent slew of typhoons that ravaged the country and region, discussion revolved around transparency in the context of disaster preparedness and response. It should be noted upfront that the need for transparency, in general, was uncontroversial. The point of contention was timing. Some local executives argued that public engagement should come in early and upstream, ideally during the budgeting process, so that citizens know how calamity funds (5% of the budget, by law) will be spent. In addition, since citizens have a say in disaster preparedness, participation is incorporated throughout the “disaster response cycle.” Others officials argued that given extraordinary circumstances, these funds could be spent with some amount of discretion insofar as such spending is carried out in compliance with broader rules and regulations. Flexibility in response capacity is critical and while informing constituents is important, it can come later when things have quieted down and some semblance of normality has returned.

I believe both positions have pros and cons, as articulated and defended by people who hold the mandate to operationalize transparency at the local level and are thus informed by on the ground realities. Therefore, these types of discussions are rare opportunities to validate concepts, such as transparency, often bandied about to varying levels of abstraction in governance and development discourse.

So how is the concept defined? The Asian Development Bank defines transparency in governance as “… the availability of information to the general public and clarity about government rules, regulations, and decisions.” (Governance: Sound Development Managament, p. 11). In its Governance and Anti-Corruption Strategy, the World Bank discusses transparency in government in the following manner: “… making information broadly available to citizens on the operation of the public sector can help strengthen accountability, and so improve public sector performance.” Transparency includes providing information on budget and procurement data, state records and reports, active dissemination of operational and performance data, and public disclosure of income and assets of decision-makers.

While I think these definitional elements are critical in improving governance and accountability, they don’t really help us resolve the disagreement described above: should transparency come before or after a disaster strikes? I think exploring possible answers has both normative empirical dimensions. How much power should citizens have in public decision-making and do we think participation, enabled by transparency and access to information, actually makes a difference?

Local public officials, due to their close proximity to constituents, live out these questions in their day-to-day work and, as such, perhaps provide the best proof of concept. Mayor Jesse Robredo of Naga City, Philippines, whose administration has won numerous national and international awards for its participatory approach to governance had this to say during last week’s learning event: “… we have decided to share power with our constituents. In sharing, they return it back to us, and we share it back with them.” In addition, “If you share power with your constituents, they return you back to power.” Robredo has served six three-year terms.

These quotes remind me of a statement made by another local public official from a very different political environment, who decided to share decision-making power with citizens on selecting infrastructure projects. According to Jiang Zhaohua*, Party Secretary of Zeguo Township, Wenling City, China, “although I gave up some final decision-making power, we gain more power back because the process has increased legitimacy for the choice of priority projects and has created public transparency in the public policy decision-making process. Public policy is, therefore, more easily implemented.”

Photo credit: Vic Sison and Lisa Cruz

* as quoted by Fishkin, et al (2008), on p. 468 of Governance Reform Under Real World Conditions: Citizens, Stakleholders, Voice.