Open Government for Dummies: Transparency

What is transparency in the Open Government model? Transparency and access to public information are a transversal axis of Open Government. Discover its implications and best practices.

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By Laura Tamia Ortiz Chaves. Published: July 2021.

Our post “Open Government for Dummies” discussed the definitions of Open Government, its principles, background, and benefits for improving public governance. We pointed out in that post that those benefits are only realized if the implementation of the Open Gov model is appropriately done.

There are several conceptual approaches to Open Government. Most of the experts agree on the principles necessary to ensure openness, including transparency, citizen participation, and accountability. The principles are not separate elements. They are a system in which each contributes in an organic and interdependent way. In this post, we will focus on what transparency in open government is or should be.

What is Transparency in Open Government?

To address Transparency, we have to refer to the right of access to public information. This right is protected by the fundamental right to freedom of expression, recognized by many international conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 19), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 19), the American Convention on Human Rights (art. 13), the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (art. IV) or the Inter-American Democratic Charter (art. 4). It is also included in most of the political constitutions and legislation of democratic countries, and are part of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular with goal 16 and its goal 16.10: “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national laws and international agreements.”

Through freedom of expression, which protects the expression of ideas and thoughts, access to information is optimally exercised. At the same time, citizens have the right to be informed to be able to express these ideas. Delimiting one implies infringing on the other. The World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders can give us a global vision of the performance of countries in this regard as it evaluates, from the point of view of press freedom, the performance of 180 countries in multiple categories, including transparency and freedom of expression.

The regulations above establish mandatory minimum requirements for the publication and disclosure of public information. However, the fact that the right exists and that these minimums are established does not translate into that information being available in a clear, timely, understandable, and easily accessible manner, or that it is open by default or in formats suitable for its reuse.

The open government encourages public stakeholders always to go further than the minimums set by legislation. The Ibero-American Charter on Open Government points out that transparency, in the framework of open government, includes two fundamental areas: the right of access to information held by public institutions -which citizens may request-, and the obligation of governments to proactively disclose information on their activities, the use of public resources and their performance, based on the principles of active publicity, such as relevance, accessibility, opportunity, honesty, comprehensibility, simplicity and full disclosure.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in its guide “From Open Government to Open State,” states that transparency is about public information being created and made available, with limited exceptions, on time, and in open data formats with no limits to reuse. It also highlights the importance of making essential information about private actors available to citizens, either directly or through public bodies.

Open Government Standards: Transparency

In 2015 Access Info Europe led a campaign to define Open Government Standards through public consultation. The Transparency-related standards identified are:

  1. Right to Know. Governments must recognize citizens' right to access public information.
  2. All information, all public bodies. The right of access to information should apply to all public bodies, all branches of government, and all private providers performing public functions.
  3. Access is the Rule – Secrecy is the Exception. Denial of access to information should be exceptional and only on grounds included explicitly in the legislation concerned.
  4. Proactive Publication of information of public interest and ensuring accessible, rapid, effective, and practical access to such information.
  5. Free of charge and free for reuse. Information should be public free of charge and with no limits on its re-use.
  6. Open Formats. Electronically stored information should be delivered via electronic means and in an open format.
  7. Compilation of information. Information should be collected promptly, regularly updated. Information necessary for public participation and accountability must be clear, complete, and understandable.
  8. Independent review mechanism. An independent body should guarantee the right to access information.

What does Transparency mean in practice?

In addition to the above, an Open Government initiative should encourage citizen participation at all stages of its development. It implies that information should be open and available at all times so that citizens can be informed about when, how, and to what extent they will participate. The information must be provided proactively and in advance through different means (not everyone has access to the internet) and formats.

You don’t trust me meme

It should be ensured that citizens have sufficient information for effective participation, so public outreach and awareness-raising activities are necessary. If citizen consultations are carried out, its results and the comments received should be made public or at least a summary of them. How citizen input was taken into account throughout the process should be honestly reported. When it was not possible to accept citizens' proposals, which is often the case, the reasons for this decision should be explained.

When the publication of public information occurs in an effective way, it improves the quality of life of the people and boosts the economy of the countries. More than 700 companies, whose model is directly based on the management of information that comes for third parties, were identified in Spain (ONTSI, 2020).

On the other hand, when information is not open, it can cause even major public health crises to go unnoticed and lead to significant expenses, both for citizens and the public administration, in legal costs. An example is the opioid crisis in the US, which became globally known after the publication in 2019 by the Washington Post of a DEA database related to the -indebted- supply of opioid painkillers, obtained and made public after a significant legal battle. As a direct result of the open data, journalists from more than 35 countries have published more than 129 articles based on the previously undisclosed data.

Transparency strengthens citizen participation in politics and the public policy cycle. It also enables accountability, which in turn enhances the sustainability and legitimacy of democratic systems. There is no open government without transparency.

Referencies

You can find more information on this topic and about the examples discussed in this post at: