I get stirred up by all types of governance data, so in honor of the International Day for Universal Access to Information, I though I’d highlight a few efforts to measure access to information. Information on access to information, if you will.
There are many dimensions here: which information? accessed by whom? how? Usually we focus attention on government information, as government is funded by taxes, has enormous authority, represents the people, etc. But are we talking about specific pieces of information prescribed (or proscribed) by law? Or a more generic right to information? Well, there are measures out there looking at both.
(The Article 19 website describes the key features of a broadly defined, but reasonably circumscribed, right to information, and this U4 brief is helpful.)
For simple cross-country data on legal guarantees of access to information, the Global Right to Information Rating (RTI Rating) is a good place to start. The RTI “comparatively assesses the strength of legal frameworks for the right to information from around the world.” Experts analyze the current legal framework for the right to information value chain: right of access, scope, requesting procedures, exceptions and refusals, appeals, sanctions and protections, and promotional measures. (The Global Integrity Index similarly includes questions on generalized freedom of information in law and in practice, and EuroPAM does so for many European countries.)
While the RTI rating focuses on the right to information, other measures focus on availability of information of specific sorts or for specific purposes. There are several cross-country datasets of this type that I find useful.
Let’s start with access to information in the process of developing laws and regulations. Transparency enables participation, and is expected to lead to better and fairer laws and regulations in the first place. The World Bank’s Global Indicators of Regulatory Governance project explores how governments interact with the public when shaping regulations that affect businesses, professional associations, civic groups and foreign investors. It covers many aspects of this interactions including the publication of draft regulations for comment and ability of people to access all the laws and regulations currently in force in one, consolidated place.
When it comes to access to information about the budget process, the Open Budget Index (OBI) is one of my “go to” sources. The OBI is based on a set of questions assessing the “amount and timeliness of budget information that governments make publicly available in eight key budget documents in accordance with international good practice standards.” The OBI showed improvement in budget transparency between 2008 and 2015, with a modest (though concerning) decline in 2017.
Conducted by experts, and self-assessed by the government itself, the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) assesses, among other things, transparency of public finances. The process of generating the assessments together with government puts the PEFA in contrast to most of the other methodologies mention in this blog post.
There are also many cross-country measures of access to information in specific sectors. Given the rents and potential for abuse in the extractives sectors, several initiatives focus on governance in this sector. As the name suggests, Resource Governance Index (RGI) measures the quality of governance in the oil, gas and mining sectors. Based on a survey of experts, with peer review to ensure a consistent and well-informed approach, the RGI covers such things such as disclosure of environmental and social impact assessments, public disclosure of data on the value of tax/payment receipts, publication of beneficial ownership information, etc. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) provides data on compliance with the EITI standard for the publication of data by both governments and firms in order to promote the open and accountable management of oil, gas and mineral resources.
Sometimes, sector level data on access to information can be found in broader assessment of a sector. The World Bank Group’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA) looks at regulations that impact how markets function in the agriculture and agribusiness sectors. The EBA land indicators include “coverage, relevance, and currency of land records and whether documentation of land rights is available for all.” The World Bank’s study on Procuring Infrastructure Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) has a transparency score that benchmarks whether the legal framework for PPPs requires publication of PPP public procurement notices, contracts, etc.
Okay, so a country has legislation guaranteeing access to information, but is it enforced? Some initiatives provide subjective assessments of how thoroughly the laws are implemented (GII, for example), others survey citizens about their views on access to information (Vietnam’s PAPI is a good example).
But here is the beauty about measuring compliance with access to information laws vis-à-vis most other governance-related policies. If the law says X should be published on the website and it is not there, or if the law says certain information should be provided on request and it isn’t, well, this is non-compliance that can be tracked over time. You can measure real compliance, not perceptions of compliance.
A few home-grown examples I’ve come across: Years ago, Romania passed an access to information law after a massive push from civil society organizations which then set out to test compliance. Repeating the exercise a few years later, they found some progress. (Review here.) The Independent Research Institute of Mongolia (IRIM) has been tracking publication of information on government websites annually since 2014, and showing gradual improvement over the years.
We took a similar approach in Vietnam, looking at both information required to be published online and that which would typically be provided at government offices. Focusing on land, we checked in a systematic way whether the legal provisions for disclosure were being complied with at the province, district, and commune levels. The Vietnam Land Transparency Study found that more information was being made available in 2013 than in 2010. This was true both for site visits (information posted on bulletin boards) and on the province websites.
None of these are perfect, of course, and I am sure there are many other good examples. If you think of a good one that I missed, please add it in the comment section. Happy Access to Information Day!