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Proactive vs. Reactive Transparency

Naniette Coleman's picture


"Transparency, is transparency, is transparency I thought.


It is transparent is it not?


Well except when it is proactive, that makes it not reactive."

N.H. Coleman


My poetic dalliances aside, Helen Darbishire’s recent World Bank Institute commissioned and CommGAP financed working paper on standards, challenges and opportunities in transparency made me think. “Proactive Transparency: The Future of the Right to Information” looks at, among other things, the drivers of transparency, the best of transparency provisions on the national and international stage, and notable outcomes grown from the examination of transparency provisions. So, what exactly is proactive transparency and why is it important? 


Even though I wrote a blog post about a proactive transparency project in New York State a few weeks ago, Project Sunlight, I found it hard to wrap my mind around the concept, and how institutionalizing it could benefit economies around the world. That is until I read this paper. According to Ms. Darbishire, the Executive Director of Access Info Europe and the Chair of the FOI Advocates Network, “there are two main ways by which information held by public bodies can be accessed by the public. The first is when individual members of the public file requests for and receive information (reactive disclosure). The second is when information is made public at the initiative of the public body, without a request being filed. This is known as proactive disclosure and the result is proactive transparency, which can be achieved, using a multiplicity of means ranging from publications and official gazettes, to publicly accessible notice boards, to radio and television announcements, to posting on the Internet via a public institutions website." Ms. Darbishire’s paper reviews “the development of, and the emerging standards for, proactive disclosure” and purport that “proactive disclosure is integral to the transparency that underpins good government, and in that sense has always been part of the right to information, even preceding the more recent development of access to information laws.” 


In my review of Helen’s paper I was particularly intrigued by the “Proactive Disclosure as the Future of the Right to Know” section because it moved from the idea of theory to actual countries and entities around the world putting these tools into practice. I would recommend that reform proponents read this paper and pay particular attention to the practical suggestions. On that note, some of the finer moments in history for proactive disclosure in 2009 were:


January 1, 2009: Mandatory minimum

standard proactive disclosure rules come into

force in the UK under the Information

Commissioner’s Model Publication Scheme.


January 21, 2009: President Barack Obama

on his first day in office issued a memorandum

on the Freedom of Information Act

which shifted the U.S. Administration from

a presumption of secrecy to one of disclosure

in response to FOI requests, and went

one step further to urge proactive disclosure:


The presumption of disclosure also means

that agencies should take affirmative steps to

make information public. They should not

wait for specific requests from the public. All

agencies should use modern technology to inform

citizens about what is known and done

by their Government. Disclosure should be



April 14, 2009: European Court of Human

Rights confirms for the first time that

there is a fundamental right of access to information

linked to the right to freedom

of expression and necessary for civil society

to hold government bodies accountable

and to create forums for public debate.


April 30, 2009: European Union rules requiring

member states to proactively disclose

data on agricultural subsidies come into

force. This is the largest ever

proactive disclosure initiative to apply across

the 27-member Union.


May 21, 2009: U.S. Government launches whose purpose is to give direct

public access to machine-readable datasets

generated by the Executive Branch of the

U.S. Federal Government. An initial 47 datasets

are on line, of the thousands planned

for release. Openness advocates hail this

as an “enormous change in attitude about

what ‘public’ means”.


June 10, 2009: UK government announces

that Tim Berners-Lee, one of the inventors

of the World Wide Web, is working

with to create a single online point of access

for government-held public data and

how to use the Internet to improve government

consultation processes.

was subsequently launched on January 21,



June 18, 2009: World’s first treaty on access

to information, the Council of Europe

Convention on Access to Official Documents

opens for signature; it contains a provision

on proactive disclosure.


July 8, 2009: Indian government announced

that it will be broadening the rules for proactive

disclosure contained in the Right to Information

Act (2005) to increase disclosure in “non-strategic

areas” beyond the 18 core disclosure provisions

of the act. Civil society groups point out that

there is flexibility in the existing provisions and

urge better compliance with these.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dbl90

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