The UN has long espoused the promotion of transparency and access to information as core elements of human rights and anticorruption efforts. In 1946, UN Resolution 59(I), adopted in the very first session of the General Assembly declared: “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” Subsequently, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights included the freedom of information as an intrinsic component of the freedom of expression. The UN Convention Against Corruption requires signatories "to take measures to enhance transparency in public administration,” And the 2000 Millennium Declaration, the preamble to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) declared the resolve to “ensure freedom of the media to perform their essential role and the right of the public to have access to information.”
So, the prominent references to transparency and right to information in the recently released report of the High Level Panel (HLP) of Eminent Experts on the post-2015 Development Agenda is not remarkable or surprising in itself. But both the language – the report calls for a “transparency revolution” and a “data revolution,” and the framing – the report proposes that good governance and transparency be included as core targets, suggest that there is an impetus for accelerated efforts in this area.
Any inclusion of transparency in the post-2015 MDGs will only be a logical complement to other global dynamics and the deepening of the information age. On the one hand, whistleblowers, wikileaks, and global media have harnessed the inexorably unshackling power of technology to bring issues of secrecy and transparency to the center of popular consciousness. On the other hand, and perhaps as a reaction to these forces, governments are launching various initiatives to demonstrate their commitment to the principle of transparency.
Recent controversies make it amply clear that there continue to be palpable tensions between disclosure and the right to know on the one hand, and concerns about privacy, national security, and international diplomacy on the other. Nevertheless, more than 60 countries have signed up to the Open Government Partnership, a global multi-stakeholder initiative that commits signatory countries to a range of transparency measures. The recently concluded G-8 summit elevated transparency as a critical global governance issue on par with tax and trade, and issued an Open Data Charter as one of the key documents to emerge from the summit.
But, while the principle itself might have near universal appeal, translating it into concrete, actionable targets that are equally widely accepted is fraught with challenges. Not least because transparency itself is interpreted differently in different contexts – ranging from simply disclosure of information to aspects covering quality, access, and usefulness. Whatever measure is computed will clearly address only one part or another of the puzzle.
The HLP report suggests a guarantee of the public’s right to information (RTI) as a basic minimum standard. An RTI law is undoubtedly a good indicator of intent and in principle adherence to the idea of openness, but hardly adequate. More than 90 countries already have RTI laws, but in the face of implementation and context challenges in many countries, such laws have made little difference. There are several global indices that measure the extent of actual disclosure of information in specific areas – budgets, extractive industry revenues, but as has been suggested, a composite indicator of the extent of transparency in a society might be neither feasible, nor useful.
Moreover, a focus on the disclosure of information (and even taking into account issues of quality, accessibility, and usability of information), in abstraction from the broader institutional environment that conditions whether transparency policies can succeed and whether they have an impact will mean little. A broad assumption is embedded across transparency policies – that as information is pumped out into the public space, citizens will be “empowered ……to hold governments and companies to account,” as the Declaration issued by the G8 Summit contends.
But in effect, transparency in many areas – including in most of the areas outlined in the G8 Open Data Charter – is useful because the disclosure of information enables specialized oversight agencies to work more effectively by removing a critical constraint, and when complementary institutions provide a credible threat of sanctions when corruption, non-performance, or other wrong-doing is exposed. And although the customary “citizen” is at the center of the rhetoric around transparency, the presence of strong, vocal, and independent civil society and media groups and a political system that provides enough credible alternatives to make the threat of electoral sanctions real, are all indispensable to making transparency policies effective. Moreover, an exclusive focus on transparency might ignore more deeply seated problems, as some civil society groups have argued in the case of the land transparency.
Surprisingly for an idea that uses up so much bandwidth, and embodies so much promise, there is still relatively little research about the kind broader institutional systems and political dynamics necessary for transparency policies to work have an impact – what in jargony terms might be called context or enabling environment. Some efforts to assess the impact of transparency policies are being launched, and can be useful inputs to the design of both transparency policies and transparency indices. Emerging standards and indices on transparency are also starting to take a more comprehensive approach. For instance, International Budget Partnership’s latest survey identifies some of the mechanisms for participation by citizens, and assessing the extent to which their feedback is integrated into the policy process. The Open Contracting Principles, developed by the Open Contracting Initiative, include areas related to enabling environment, capacity of stakeholders, and quality of contracting outcomes. Following how these complexities are integrated into global targets will, no doubt, be fascinating.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst / World Bank
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