WB Pledged to Disclose Extinct Meeting Summaries

5 November 2010

By Toby McIntosh

In the spring of 2009, in the midst of consultations about a new disclosure policy for the World Bank, pro-transparency advocates urged the Bank to disclose the “Summaries of Discussion” prepared for many years about the meetings of the Bank’s Executive Board.

The summaries,  for internal use only, described what was said at board meetings, including the comments of individual directors, but without naming names.   Making these summaries public, Bank observers argued, would open a window on board proceedings, enhancing public understanding of Bank operations without interfering with board deliberations.

So pro-transparency advocates applauded in November 2009, when the Bank agreed to release summaries.

But in the interval, and unknown to those urging their release, the Bank had stopped doing the summaries.

By July 1, 2009, summaries were extinct, the victim of budget cuts and lack of use, Bank officials said in recent interviews and a statement to Freedominfo.org .

News of Extinction Went Undisclosed

The elimination of the summaries, however, was not revealed to pro-transparency advocates. 

Bruce Jenkins  is the  former Policy Director at the Bank Information Center and currently a consultant on development and governance issues. He was the lead staff person on disclosure policy for BIC and also represented the Global Transparency Initiative.

Asked for his comment by FreedomInfo.org, Jenkins responded:

“We touted the agreed release of Summaries of Discussion as a significant step toward addressing the Bank’s democratic deficit in that citizens of shareholder governments would gain at least a glimpse of the debates that their representatives were engaged in at this public international institution. I did not know that we were advocating for something that in effect had been zeroed out. Once again, it’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’ with the Bank. And that they continue to claim that they must protect the Board’s deliberative process after deliberations have concluded is beyond me.”

Bank officials declined to comment on whether the elimination of the summaries had been disclosed during the development of the new disclosure policy.

The Return of Summaries

After the extinction of summaries came their partial resurrection.

As the Bank was preparing to implement the new “access to information” policy in early 2010, it realized that there were no summaries to release. 

So the Bank reinvented summaries, but on fewer topics than before and with a much shorter format.

The effort, officials now say, was intended “to be responsive to the spirit of the policy.”

The Bank decided to prepare summaries about regular Board meetings about lending operations, primarily loans for projects.

“Because lending operations were the only regular Board discussions for which a more informative record (other than the Board minutes and transcripts) did not exist at this point, Corporate Secretariat reintroduced SDs,” according to a Bank statement to Freedominfo.org.

These new summaries filled a void not handled by another category of post-meeting descriptions, known as “Summings Up.”

Summings Up recount Board discussions.  Usually running less than a page, they are longer than the Board’s minutes, and come out sooner, but are shorter than the previous summaries of discussion.

“Summings Up are prepared for policy/strategy issues discussed in formal Board sessions (country strategies, PRSPs, HIPCs)…,” the Bank wrote Freedominfo.org.  PRSPs are Poverty Reduction Strategy Programs, and HIPC refers to the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.

On some of these topics, the longer summaries had been prepared before summaries were dropped. 

Shorter Summaries `Safeguard’ Deliberations

The new summaries are abbreviated versions of the former “Summaries of Discussion,” as they were officially termed.

As previously reported by Freedominfo.org, the old summaries ran several pages or more, while the new ones are consistently under one page long.

This is intentional, the Bank explained, “to safeguard the deliberative process.”

The Bank statement amplifies:

However, in accordance with the AI policy, the content of the SDs had to be such as to safeguard the deliberative process of the Board. As a consequence, the new SDs would highlight only the key points of discussion.  The deliberative content is similarly protected for other Board records such as Green Sheets. Notably, SDs prepared before July 1, 2010, because they are deliberative in nature, are only disclosed after five years.

Further, as the SDs were now to be publicly disclosed, it became necessary to give Executive Directors an opportunity to comment on them, though they still do not formally approve this record. In line with the established and continuing practice for Chairman’s Summings Up (former Concluding Remarks), the Chairperson now reads SDs at the end of each regular Board meeting discussion and then the SDs are posted for a 24 hour comment period prior to their public disclosure.

Policy-Making Sequence

The demise of summaries was not indicated to those lobbying for their disclosure, according to interviews with civil society organization persons involved beginning in early 2009.

The Bank began its deliberations with a general call for comments.  In March 2009, when the Bank issued its “approach paper” on the disclosure policy, it was noted that a special Board task force would be developing proposals about Board operations. (See Freedominfo.org report.)

The task force’s work would proceed for many months and their decisions eventually were  incorporated into the final draft.

In May 2009, when Freedominfo.org was researching a story about summaries, Bank officials described how they were created and other details, but did not suggest their demise was near.

On Oct. 12, 2009, when the Bank staff issued its final proposed policy, it included a commitment to release summaries. (See previous Freedominfo report.)  The provision was retained when the board on Nov. 17, 2009, approved the new disclosure policy. (See previous Freedominfo.org report.)

Bank History of Summaries

The Bank Nov. 4 summarized the history of summaries in a statement to Freedominfo.org. That portion of the statement says:

For their first few decades of existence, Summaries of Discussions (SDs) were strictly internal documents, based on staff notes, used to assist management in its deliberations and planning.  They went through no approval process and were not shared with the Executive Directors (EDs).  In the early 2000s, in the context of expanded outreach efforts to EDs’ offices, they began to be proactively shared with EDs, but still no approvals were sought and no edits were considered.  Because no approvals were sought, they were not considered an approved Board record.

The only formal and approved record of Board discussions was then and continues to be the Board minutes. 

In 2009, in the context of a process of internal reorganization, Corporate Secretariat conducted a review of various products in light of internal resource constraints, but also reflecting varying demand for those products expressed by EDs. One of these products was the Summary of Discussion.

At that time, it was decided that, beginning July 1, 2009, SDs would be prepared only for policy and strategy items discussed at regular meetings (i.e., where decisions are made).  Furthermore, it was agreed that SDs would no longer be prepared for operational items (i.e., lending).  Thus, no SDs were written for Country Assistance Strategies (CASs) or for lending between July 1, 2009 and the launch of the new Access to Information policy on July 1, 2010.  Further, for purposes of consistency, SDs of policy and strategy discussions, as well as Chairman’s Concluding Remarks for CASs, PRSPs, etc., were renamed as Chairman’s Summings Up (SUs). It is to be noted that the AI policy (footnote 17) is explicit on the fact that “not all [Board records] are produced following every Board meeting.” This was meant to indicate that, reflecting business needs, Summaries of Discussions were not prepared for all Board meetings in line with the criteria discussed above.

The description of the preparation of summaries after 2000 differs somewhat from the information given to Freedominfo.org in May 2009. Freedominfo.org reported:

The summaries are written during each meeting, and rough drafts are read to the attendees at the end. Later, the summary is polished, with some opportunity for comment by involved staffers. Circulation occurs in about two weeks, but is quite limited, to the directors and their staffs, plus top management officials and staffers involved on the topic discussed.

The Bank declined to say how much was saved by eliminating the summaries, what indicators were used to indicate that the summaries were underutilized, or whether the Board approved the decision. An official noted that this non-disclosure was because of the corporate/administrative exception.

Transcripts

On a related topic, the Bank has clarified when it prepares transcripts of Board meetings and to whom they are disclosed internally.

  • Verbatim transcripts are prepared for informal meetings, but not for technical briefings. 
  • Executive Directors and their staff can read transcripts of the Board of Directors’ meetings in the designated secured area.  Bank staff require authorization from a manager at director level.

 Under the new AI policy, transcripts will be disclosable after five years.

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ABOUT 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).
Contact: freeinfo@gwu.edu or
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