On November 17, 2009 the Board of the World Bank approved a new policy that will help strengthen the norm of transparency in governance in the global system. It is the Access to Information Policy. The new policy goes into effect on July 1, 2010. The following elements of the policy are notable:
- There is a philosophical shift from disclosure to access; that is, from July 1 the presumption will be in a favor of access to any information held by the World Bank outside a narrow list of exceptions.
- Access to World Bank information will be facilitated by the institution itself via a range of media.
- Procedures and service standards will be set up for tracking and responding to requests.
- There will be an appeals procedure that requesters of information can use, and a body of international experts will play a role in the appeals process.
- Finally, civil society organizations are to be encouraged to play a role in raising awareness of the new policy, encouraging the use of the new procedures, and monitoring implementation.
Is the new policy perfect in every respect and will it please everyone? Of course not. Implementation will be challenging and not everything that needs to be in place will be from the get-go. But there are at least two reasons why the new policy is important. First, international organizations like the World Bank cannot go around the world preaching transparency and accountability to governments without practicing it themselves. Several NGOs rudely made the point to me when in 2008 I was speaking at a Carter Center Conference on access to information and I was describing the Bank's work on transparency in governance. At the time my lame reply was that a new policy was in the works. It is good to see it actually arrive. The second reason is what Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman and James O'Toole, the authors of Transparency, call the 'culture of candor':
"When we speak of transparency and creating a culture of candor, we are really talking about the free flow of information within an organization and between the organization and its many stakeholders, including the public...An organization's capacity to compete, solve problems, innovate, meet challenges, and achieve goals -- its intelligence, if you will -- varies to the degree that information flow remains healthy. That is particularly true when the information in question consists of crucial but hard-to-take facts, the information that leaders may bristle at hearing -- and that subordinates too often,understandably, play down, disguise, or ignore."
I end with that quote in order to make the point that for the staff of the Bank, its leaders and its many stakeholders and publics an interesting period is about to commence. It will come with arguments aplenty, noisy, painful moments and lessons. But it will also come with greater openness, accountability and just a little bit more candor all around. Above all, it will come with an added boost to one of the most powerful norms in the governance agenda: transparency.