5/12/2016

Portals of transparency advance in Latin America, but with reduced range

 

There is a country where citizens can follow the lobbying done on parliamentarians online. In another, you can access public spending by federal employees or request information on the salaries of judges and parliamentarians. Both countries are in Latin America - viable initiatives because of open data policies and access to information. The problem is that these benefits only accrue to a few people out of the region’s 569 million.

"We still see that few countries have adequate open data portals. Even in the most populous there are difficulties of implementation and compliance with access to information laws," says Chilean Moisés Sánchez, executive secretary of the Alianza Regional por la Libre Expresión e Información, a coalition of 23 organizations from 19 countries in Latin America.

The Alianza Regional, which is headquartered in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is supported by institutions such as the Open Society Foundations and has participated in the process of creating access to information laws in seven countries in the region.

According to Sánchez, most countries in the region have laws or rules that allow access to information, with the exception of Venezuela and Bolivia. The last country in Latin America to have passed an access to information law was Argentina in September. For Sánchez, the existence of these laws and rules for accessing information is a step in the right direction. For the first time, these governments have established - in law - the right of the citizen to know how public institutions work; but, unfortunately, not all of these laws are effective or actually respected.

When discussing open data portals, Sánchez  criticizes their small number (our report only found 83 structured portals) and affirms that in most cases are only created by central governments. There is still much scope to advance data and information transparency in the other arms of government, such as the Legislative, and especially the Judiciary.

"Another failure is that most portals require expertise to navigate, and particularly the information is not always understood by the ordinary people," he adds.

Although Sánchez admits recent access to information laws are a major breakthrough, he says that they still have weak mechanisms. There are still parts of these governments that have not yet internalized the laws, which show low levels of answers or simply deny sensitive information, even when there is public interest.

"Moreover, there are still challenges in the dissemination of these laws. And the people themselves have to learn about them to become aware of their importance. This leads these laws to be used by only a small number of the population”.

For Sánchez , the right to access information covers all information in the hands of the state or that which is generated with public funds including private sector activities for public purposes.

"This is the case of companies that provide public services operating under concession. However, today is also to consider the need for companies involved in high public interest are also subject to those obligations. This is an agenda that is moving, and certainly represent one of the major challenges of access to information for the following years," he adds.

Recent advances

According to the Open Knowledge International, open data are defined by a set of principles established in a meeting held on 7 and 8 December 2007 in Sebastopol, California, which brought together researchers, representatives of civil society organizations and American activists.

The basic idea is that government data are common properties in the same manner that scientific ideas are. The philosophy behind the concept of open government data is inspired by the concept of open source, based on three conceptual pillars: openness, participation and collaboration.

But the recent major political milestone in the world, which boosted other countries, took place in 2008 following President Barack Obama's Memorandum on Transparency and Government Data and the creation of Data.gov, in order to provide an open data portal in which US government data could be accessed on the internet by any citizen.

Brazil

The Brazilian government followed suit and became one of the Open Government Partnership founders. This Partnership was created in 2011 and currently has the participation of 65 countries. Brazil also created the dados.gov.br portal that provides government data in line with open data principles.

Before this, the complementary law 131/2009 determined the transparency of fiscal management. It established that detailed information on the budgetary and financial implementation of the Union, the States, the Federal District and municipalities must be disclosed in real time.

But according to the research coordinator of Transparency Brazil, Juliana Sakai, this transparency of fiscal management is still restricted to the federal and state governments and some major cities.

“There is a lack of supervision and punishment for those who do not obey the law. Also, we have to recognize that many municipalities still do not have resources for this, technical preparation to disclose data or the culture of transparency,” Sakai comments.

In regards to Brazil’s open data portals, which are an evolution because they aim disclose all that is of public interest, Sakai believes that the best are run by the federal government. This is because they have the most updated information, structured data and metadata (auxiliary information that explains data and their authors).

"But there is no unified policy on how to open the data. Each one opens in its own way and are not updated often”.

Regarding the law on access to information (12.527/2011), Sakai praises its existence, as citizens previously had to rely on the agency’s good will to provide an answer. By law, now all public agencies must respond in 20 days and then, if the person feels that something’s was missing, they can appeal. All done online.

But the problems with these laws are the same as those with the data portals: Smaller agencies have difficulty answering or institutions often use trickery to postpone the transmission of information.

"The law has a few exceptions for confidentiality, as cases of privacy or national security, but other exceptions are vague and this opens the door to abuse. For example, the law allows the public agency to refuse to deliver the requested information if it declares that this is too laborious for the public servant. This is very relative, both because disclosing any information of public interest should one of the duties public servants and public offices should be organized enough to have administrative information available. This situation is often worse in the legislative and judicial powers,” Sakai analyzes.

She says that Transparency Brazil and Abraji (Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism) are developing a portal to disseminate information that has already been revealed with the help of the access to information laws.

"It will be a repository for people to consult revealed information and to get a sense of which public agencies more likely to disclose their information”.


Brazilian President Michel Temer, whose office began in May after the impeachment process against former President Dilma Rousseff began, created the Ministry of Transparency, Inspection and Control to replace the Office of the Comptroller General (CGU) as one of the first acts of office.

Yet, Sakai says it is very difficult to evaluate what this move should mean.

The CGU, created in 2003, was the maximum control authority of the federal government. Sakai says that the CGU was a kind of "super ministry", because it was directly linked to the Presidency of the Republic, and now it has become a ministry like the others, which could hinder its work.

The creation of the Transparency Ministry was also controversial because its boss, Fabiano Silveira, was exonerated in June, when audio recordings were revealed in which he criticized a federal anti-corruption operation against illegal funding of Electoral campaigns and irregular contracts in state-owned enterprises.

"There was no transparency in this change, about the reasons and what benefits it will bring. CGU had the quality of not being a ministry and so it could assess the conduct of other ministries”.

The change was authorized on a provisional measure issued by President Michel Temer. In a statement, the Ministry of Transparency says the agency continues to act as the central organ of the Internal Control System and the Eyre System. All activities related to the protection of public property and increasing the transparency of the management are said to be maintained through internal control, public audit, eyre, anti-corruption initiatives, and the ombudsman.

Chile

Open data portals that allow social oversight of certain institutions and authorities, such as the Congress, or the public bids system, information about the lobbying law, and declarations of interest and property are some products of the Chilean access to information law.

María Jaraquemada is director of Espacio Público, an independent study center on information access in Chile. She believes that there is a lack of initiative in the municipalities (only some have portals) and that the private sector also needs to participate in this process.

"And also the portals do not talk with each other and the data are not always structured correctly or completely. They are more intended for a technical audience, they are not always up to date and very few are known," she critiques.

Jaraquemada considers that Chilean information laws need to be more well known in the country, but praises the fact that they are well evaluated in accordance with international standards, as well as having an autonomous regulatory agency.

"But the problem is that this autonomous oversight does not cover yet the legislative and judicial powers," she says.

Costa Rica

The civil organization Abriendo Datos Costa Rica considers that access to information in the country is still very new and small. According to its director Ignacio Alfaro Marín, for example, data from Gobierno Digital Technical Secretariat and the Presidential House are still reduced and outdated – information is only current as of  2014.

"There is no a rule that clearly establishes the proactive publication of public information and the law regulating information petitions imposes barriers such as the requirement that applications be written and signed, limited access electronically and prevents the right to anonymous surveys,” he says.

"There is no a rule that clearly establishes the proactive publication of public information and the law regulating information petitions imposes barriers such as the requirement that applications be written and signed, limited access electronically and prevents the right to anonymous surveys,” he says.

Uruguay

For Uruguayans, the information access situation also needs to improve. Daniel Carranza, co-founder of DATA Uruguay, an institution that defends open data and civic technology, complains about the little amount of data. There is only catalogodatos.gub.uy, which is a national catalog and centralizes data from government agencies and local governments.

"Uruguay has a single central government and is divided into departments, not states. There is no shortage of data portals, but there is limited participation by other powers, legislative and judicial. Private companies also do not actively participate in the open data ecosystem," he says.

He believes that one-third of the requests made under the access to information law are successful.

"More knowledge about the law and more employees are needed to sanction compliance," he said.

Colombia

The main complaint made by Alexander Plata Pineda, director of Fundación Gobierno Abierto Colombia, is that the open data portals of some entities are not updated as they should be. Many are still been structured, and are yet to fully inventorise information.

This article was originally published in the electronic magazine Calle2. It has been translated and edited for clarity.

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