Simultaneous Disclosure Another Major Improvement

24 December 2009

One of the topics that remained under discussion was a change perhaps equally important to the adoption of a presumption of disclosure. The Board, despite some dissension, took a major step toward letting the public know what more about staff recommendations and its own deliberations.

In 2001, the Bank started posting advance agendas for its meetings. But exactly what would be discussed, what the Bank “management” had recommended on the listed topics, was unknown until after the meeting.

Under the new policy, these “draft” documents will be disclosed when they are forwarded to Executive Directors, usually about two weeks before the “EDs” meet.

The fear of some directors is that the process will more politicized and directors who represent groups of countries felt their task would be complicated by greater attention.  Disclosure advocates argued that such openness will enhance the potential for public involvement and heightened oversight.

The World Bank and other IFIs in recent years have moved in this direction of disclosing staff proposals before they are voted on by the governing bodies. They have increased the use of public comment periods, especially for topics with wide implications. Critics of these consultations pushed for the public release the final staff recommendations, written after follow the consultations, and gradually a few of these were disclosed.

The new Bank policy calls for “simultaneous disclosure” of staff recommendations not only on broad policies and sectoral strategies, but also of their assessments of proposed projects and programs within individual countries. Currently documents such as Project Appraisal Documents and Program Documents are only available after the meetings.

Now they will be made public in advance of the meeting, but there are exceptions.  The main one is that governments may block the disclosure of documents pertaining to their countries.

The proposed simultaneous disclosure section was constrained by some words added during negotiations subsequent to the Nov. 17 meeting where the policy was approved.

More to Read

Bank observers will have additional new reading to look forward to because the Bank has decided to release its “summary” of Board meetings. While the comments made are reported anonymously, the summaries record arguments and agreements in far more detail than the current bare-bones minutes.

But the Board’s traditional preference for collegial private negotiations held sway in another element of the disclosure policy – a near absolute prohibition on EDs releasing materials about what positions EDs say, including their own. This was one of the last provisions completed.

Other advances in the policy include more specific procedural protections for those making requests, including a right to appeal, first to an internal body and then, although the aperture is narrow, to an independent review panel.

The new policy will go into effect July 1, 2010, and seven so-far only internal committees have been formed.  The Bank estimates that implementation will cost an additional $4.5 million during 2010-2012.

Adoption of the policy comes 11 months after an approach paper was announced in March. The Bank held about 30 meetings worldwide on the approach paper and in October issued a more defined proposal.

This is the fourth revision since the first formal disclosure policy of 1993. Throughout the process, disclosure advocates have been encouraged by the movement toward more proactive disclosure and the presumption/exceptions standard.

At the same time, the scope of the exceptions disappointed. The Global Transparency Initiative in November said the positive principles are “undermined by the near absolute protection it provides for so-called deliberative process information.”  The GTI similarly criticized the breadth of other exemptions.

The 25-page policy and its 7 annexes still need to be translated into final form as Bank rules.

One Step Backward

During the time between the first and second Bank press releases, about four significant alterations were made, according to Bank officials and persons knowledgeable about the process.

At least one slightly regressive change resulted from objections heard at the Nov. 17 meeting from the representatives of China, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, according to Bank officials and internal documents. Their concerns about simultaneous disclosure prompted further internal consultations and the recirculation of the document for further sign-off.

With the addition of a clause and a footnote, the policy on simultaneous disclosure was weakened with regard to operational policy papers and sector strategy papers – the documents that embody some the most significant Bank policy chances.

As proposed by management, these papers would have been disclosed “at the same time they are distributed to the Board.” The final language makes a new distinction.

Simultaneous disclosure would occur automatically for such papers if they had been the subject of a public consultation process. When consultations are approved, the Board typically sees a preliminary document about the direction of possible changes.
For policy papers the Board had not previously seen, management will be required to seek Board approval for disclosure. This permission would require “an absence of objection,” according to Footnote 20.  To allow for this discussion, these policy papers would be circulated five days in advance of the usual two week circulation period before a Board meeting.

Several Bank officials said they could not give examples of what policy papers potentially could be kept confidential as a result of this procedure.  In recent years, the Bank has approved the disclosure of three policy papers upon their distribution to the Board.

The final language on simultaneous disclosure did not go as far as a “compromise”  idea advanced by management in a Nov. 16 document. Management there proposed “a period of trial” in which simultaneous disclosure would have applied only to documents for which a draft version had been available to the public.

Translation Language Altered

Another modification to the disclosure policy moved up a deadline for conducting an assessment of the “Translation Framework.”

Instead of waiting for a year after the disclosure policy goes into effect, July 1, 2010, to decide whether to review the translation policy, the Bank will now conduct an assessment of its translational policy to be presented “well in advance” of the July 1, 2010.  Such a review should determine the feasibility and the cost of ensuring “the appropriate translation of all documents subject to simultaneous disclosure.”

Communications by Executive Directors

The new policy draws a high fence of protection around the communications by Executive Directors with each other, with third parties, and seemingly with officials in the countries they represent.  A new paragraph, 17(b), was added to emphasize this and a related paragraph, 44, was rewritten.

Bank officials indicated to that the restrictions do not constrain countries from disclosing their own positions about Bank deliberations, as long as they do not release of the actual statements their EDs circulated at the Bank.

Also, although the disclosure policy is not meant to interfere with disclosure national freedom of information laws, according to one official, it does state that any such disclosures must honor the restrictions contained in the Bank disclosure policy.  This position is based on a provision in the Articles of Agreement that established the Bank that “the archives of the bank shall be inviolable.”  The disclosure policy is intended to restrict release under national laws of Bank documents in the possession of a government or of information obtained from the Bank that would be exempt from disclosure under the Bank policy.

Financial Audits, Abridged Version

The final version also makes it possible for countries to request the release of abridged versions of their annual financial audit statements for projects (documents prepared by governments). 

A concern was expressed by some governments that some of the audits contain commercially sensitive information about nationally owned businesses. 

As a result, in “exceptional” circumstances, governments may seek Bank permission to release an abridged version of the audit.

Implementation Committees Being Established

The Bank is in the process of setting up seven subcommittees on implementation. They are concerned with:

  1. IT systems;
  2. classification of documents;
  3. a staff handbook;
  4. communication external and internal about the policy;
  5. training for Bank staff and staff of other organizations who may want to access information under the new policy;
  6. translations;
  7. the implications for our public information centers, staff and systems.

 By Toby McIntosh

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Filed under: IFTI Watch


In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
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