Celebrating 10 years of transparency at the World Bank

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trans·par·en·cy

noun​

The condition of being transparent.

The World Bank made a commitment to transparency ten years ago when the Access to Information Policy was launched.  July 1, 2020 marks a full decade of the Bank having flung open its doors to the external world in a move that was both bold and groundbreaking. At that time none of the multilateral development community had attempted something so pioneering and the external and peer feedback was resoundingly positive. 

As a brief recap for those of you not living and breathing disclosure, the Policy basically says that anything the Bank has in its possession is available to the public unless it falls under a list of defined exceptions. This was a revolutionary concept a decade ago and still remains a solid, easy to understand concept for the sharing of information. It was a radical change from the previous Disclosure Policy that only allowed a specific list of documents to be disclosed. The Access to Information Policy pushed the World Bank into quite progressive territory and brought us into the same arena as many of our client countries who had significantly advanced national freedom of information legislation , like the India Right to Information Act and the US Freedom of Information Act. And now that we're solidly in this forward-looking space, there's no place to move but ahead. But before we can look ahead, we should look back at the last ten years and see if there's any pearls of wisdom to be gleaned. What has the World Bank learned from having launched this revolutionary access to information policy in 2010?  

Ten years later, ten lessons learned…

1. Change Takes Time

It's trite, but it's true. It's difficult to get people to completely change the way they think about anything, let alone how they handle and process documents in the workplace. The previous Disclosure Policy was 'easy', as all you had to do was see if your document was on the list and could be disclosed. The sea shift to the new policy was significant; staff had to really read and evaluate their document, which meant understanding the policy. To gain that understanding, all staff were required to take a mandatory training on the Policy. 

2. Support Must Come From the Top

In an institution with the size and organizational structure of the Bank, the signaling from the top was critical and senior management at the time completely owned the Policy and emphasized its importance to staff at every opportunity, linking it with the values of the organization. The message filtered down the chain of command to all staff and was reinforced through communication toolkits. 

3. Tools Must Be in Place to Effect the Change

Whenever there is a change, we recognize that the first concern of staff will be "is this an added complication to my job?" To prevent it from becoming onerous we ensured staff had quick access to handbooks and help desks, training and webinars, websites and FAQs, all of which were put in place and ready for July 1. With experience under our belt, we've realized that ideally certain aspects of implementation should be hardwired into systems to make the application of the Policy easier.   

4.  Communications and Outreach Are Key

With an institution of the Bank's size, with more than 100 country offices, communication of the (then) new Policy had to reach to all corners of the globe. Everybody had to be on the same page when midnight struck on July 1, 2010, as the new day of disclosure was dawning. Communication toolkits and packages were created for decentralized staff, and guidance for Country Directors to explain the new Policy to clients, were some of the instruments drafted to ensure that a systemic message on the new face of disclosure was consistent across the institution.

5.  Ability to Tweak and Adjust

Even after just a couple of years of implementation, it was clear certain things had to be adjusted. Two amendments were made in 2013 and 2015. The 2013 amendment pertained to the declassification of verbatim transcripts and statements of Executive Directors and staff prepared in the context of Board and Board Committee meetings, and the 2015 amendment aligned the treatment of the documents and records of the Board of Governors to the treatment of the documents and records of the Board of Executive Directors. And as implementation went on, it became clear that the accompanying Policy document, the AI Directive/Procedure, would need to become a living document, that it would need to be amended regularly to allow for tweaks that did not rise to the Policy level, but would improve and smooth implementation. 

6. Willing to Learn from Stakeholders

In every field and virtually every walk of life, change and progress come through constructive criticism. The Policy, while being revolutionary in 2010, was not meant to be the last step in disclosure.  It was useful to have the system tested by outside requests, one of which brought to light that the process for requesting Board records could be streamlined.  Indeed the Bank undertook this effort in 2016 and today the process is vastly improved. 

7. Ability to Empathize

With the Access to Information Policy, a key soft skill is empathy. When you're outside the institution, you obviously see the Policy in very black and white terms. But on the inside, when you're reviewing a request in the first instance, or an appeal, it's important to put yourself in the shoes of the requester. Did they understand how to make a request, were our instructions clear? If something was ambiguous, we would err on the side of the requester. On their appeal, did they know how to argue public interest? Let's give the requester the benefit of the doubt. 

8. Need to Connect and Share with Partner Organizations

A key element and value contribution over the last decade has been networking with fellow multilateral development banks on their own access to information policies. This has allowed an exchange of ideas and experience, what has worked well, what has been challenging, what are pitfalls in terms of one approach and successes of another. 

9. Staying Current

The Bank has constantly kept track of developments in the right to information field, both in terms of comparator institutions as well as national legislation. Some of the latter group have pushed the envelope further in certain aspects, and we remain vigilant in our efforts to maximize transparency.  Indeed we remain among the top of our own group of multilaterals, many of whom have modeled their policies on the Bank's. 

10. Always Remember the Spirit of the Policy

This last one seems easy enough, but it's super important to keep in mind.  The spirit of the Policy is disclosure, for the Bank to make a really strong effort to share as much as we can about how we do our business.  We must always have this ultimate goal in mind. Indeed, in closing, let me repeat the five guiding principles of the Bank's policy: maximizing access to information; setting out a clear list of exceptions; safeguarding the deliberative process; providing clear procedures for making information available; and lastly, recognizing the requesters' right to an appeals process, all as relevant today as they were a decade ago. 

Here's to the next 10 years! Happy Birthday to the World Bank's Access to Information Policy!

Series

Authors

Frances M. Allen

External Affairs Officer, Access to Information, World Bank