Variety of Transparency Issues Face New G20 Host

9 December 2013

By Toby McIntosh

If the G20 is viewed as “a big hot tub party” for world leaders, as one observer put it, then transparency might not seem too desirable.

But if viewed as an influential international policy-making institution, the application of transparency standards seems more logical.

Not necessarily an easy fit, however, given the peculiarities of the nomadic institution.

Calls for more G20 transparency continue to grow, even as critics applaud small steps toward opening up the process of decision-making that leads up to the now annual summit of leaders.

The process of developing the policies that the leaders endorse still flies under the public radar and participation by interested parties is limited. Some observers say the closed nature of the process has contributed to a decline in the effectiveness and influence of the G20, founded in 1999.

Australia, the new G20 host country as of Dec. 1, “will need to strengthen the G20 by ensuring that there are clear and common objectives, better communication, greater transparency and strengthened accountability,” according to Mike Callaghan, a long-time government official in Australia who now is Program Director of the G20 Studies Centre of the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

Callaghan’s wide-ranging blog post “playbook” for the Brisbane summit on Nov. 16, 2014, recaps harsh criticisms of the G-20 and offers a few transparency-related suggestions.

Many G20 observers concur with his diagnosis and some offer stronger prescriptions for greater transparency. An October report by New Rules for Global Finance, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, gave the G20 a score of 1.5 out of 4 for transparency.

Classic Transparency Concerns

The standard litany of transparency weaknesses includes:

–         A lack of basic organizational information, making it hard to know even who’s involved.

–         A lack of information about what the intergovernmental working groups are developing as they develop the commitments for the leaders to endorse.

–         Weak measurement about how the G20 countries are doing in fulfilling their commitments.

Structural Bias Against Transparency?

The structure of the G20 isn’t seen as conducive to organizational continuity, or transparency.

Indicative of the unstructured look is the lack of a permanent G20 website.

The G-20 operates without a permanent secretariat or an organizational charter. After eight summits, however, there now are some traditions and standard operating procedures.

The new hosting has some privileges, such as picking a signature issue. Also, the hosts names the members of advisory groups from the business community and civil society.

Semi-Public Preparations

The pinnacle event is the annual two-day summit attended by G20 leaders, from 19 countries and the European Union, representing 85% of world output and trade and two-thirds of the world’s population. About 10 institutional representatives attend, including the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The host generally asks about five additional countries to send representatives.

The confidential face-to-face meetings among the G20 leaders are considered the G20 crown jewel.

The bulk of what goes into the leaders’ communiqué, however, has been crafted during months of preparations, mostly out of the public eye.

Top ministers from the G20 countries meet periodically, the highest profile sessions being being  those of the finance ministers and central bank governors. But other ministers – for labor, foreign, tourism, energy and development — also meet periodically under the auspices of the G20.

Meeting preparations are largely in the hands of the G-20 leaders’ representatives, known as “sherpas.” A list of the sherpas for the Russian summit Sept. 5-6, 2013, was posted, one small recent advance for transparency. The sherpas work over the course of the year to coordinate the next summit agenda and policy goals.

In addition, G20 officials operate in  “working groups” on key areas, such as international financial architecture and development.

Advisory Groups; the Other `20s

Outside of the intergovernmental process is a ring of advisory groups with compatible names: business representatives (B20), civil society (C20), labor organizations (L20), youth (Y20) and think tanks (T20).

Each G20 presidency determines the composition of these five groups and influences their involvement levels. The Australian government has begun this process (more on that later).

Months in advance of the summit, the ‘20s groups advance their proposals on what the G20 should do. Host country officials and other G20 officials typically meet with advisory group members, although the level of interaction varies by country and in general remains a matter of continual debate.

The Business 20 gets most of the attention, according the other 20s. The B20 has held its own summit that overlaps with the G20 summit, giving CEOs face-to-face time with leaders. Civil society has struggled to get similar access, although hundreds show up at the summit. It is now pretty typical for the host country to arrange for officials to meet with the constituency groups in the days before the summit. Some CSO cynics score these as just-for-show events.

Organizations active in the G20 sphere say it’s essential to try to exert influence during the early stages of the G20 process, according to interviews with veterans of the process. They also stress the need to lobby national officials.

Lack of Basic Structural Information

Much of the policy work occurs in Various G20 working groups meet regularly in advance of the summits.

While the names of these bodies are known, the names of their members usually are not made public.

Nor are agendas, background papers or draft documents.  Some working groups now issue short summaries of their closed meetings, but generally they work in private and don’t provide minutes.

In recent years, representatives from nongovernmental organizations have been invited to address the working groups. Some well-informed parties manage to keep up on the groups’ activities as they advocate for their causes.

There were eight main working groups under the Russian G20 Presidency: Framework Working Group; Anti-Corruption Working Group; Energy Sustainability Working Group, Employment Task Force, Development Working Group, International Financial Architecture Working Group; Financing for Investment Study Group; Climate Finance Study Group.

Information on their operations is sparse, but what exists underscores that they are basically standing committees.

Witness the “program and timeline” for the working group on energy in advance of the 2013 summit in Russia:

?     Early 2013: to agree on a work plan and key deadlines for the expert work throughout 2013, including the division of labour between representatives of the member countries and expert tasks to be provided by selected international organizations.

?     February 2013: the first wave of working materials circulates; discussion papers and comments to be submitted in accordance with the working schedule.

?     14-16 February 2013: briefing the Finance Deputies and Ministers of Finance on the proposed working objectives of the ESWG.

?     19-20 February 2013: first face-to-face meeting in Moscow.

?     3-4 March 2013: briefing the Sherpas on the working process within the ESWG and receiving the feedback.

?     April – May 2013: outreach expert seminars whereas needed and initial draft deliverables.

?     June 2013: briefing the Finance Deputies on the interim results of the ESWG relevant to financial track and receiving the feedback.

?     June 2013: face-to-face meeting to exchange views on revised drafts of potential deliverables, with an expert event as needed.

?     July 2013: commonly agreed list of deliveries and ESWG proposals to the draft St. Petersburg G20 Declaration; tentative agenda for future work.

?     July 2013: reporting to the Sherpas and Ministers of Finance on the ESWG findings and proposed deliverables.

?     September 2013: text on the ESWG findings in the St. Petersburg G20 Declaration.

?     October-November 2013: sorting out unfinished business as requested.

Post Meeting Information Barebones

Top G20 ministers’ meetings get far more attention than those of the sherpas or the working groups.

Communiqués are issued after the meetings of the finance ministers and central bank governors. Country officials may brief the many reporters who cover these meetings.

Media attention to the sherpa working group meetings is  light, by contrast, and the information about them is very general, such as in this four page summary about a two-day Sherpa meeting in July 2013.

After the Development Working Group met in Russia in May 2013, the website showed a few pictures and provided only a few paragraphs about the substance of the talks. Participants’ names are rarely provided. There was a six-paragraph description about an October meeting of Task Force on Employment and four paragraphs accorded the October meeting of the Anti-Corruption Working Group.

“Most of the official reports of G20 meetings give an incomplete and sometimes misleading picture of the discussions,” according to Nancy Alexander, a long-time G20 observer who is the Program Director, Economic Governance, at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington, D.C., and who authored the New Rules assessment.

At the summits, the media access arrangements change with the host. In recent years, the media, usually several thousand strong, gets sequestered many miles from the highly secure meeting locations. The main official outcome is the summit communique. During and after the meetings, member countries typically brief to reporters, sometimes restricting access to national press. One regular observer rated media coverage as “extremely patchy and poor in general.”

“To learn what transpires at these meetings, one must search the newspapers and websites and interview officials close to G20 processes,” Alexander said.

Illustrated her view, Alexander wrote: “The official report of this May 15-17, 2013 meeting states that agreement was reached on the future development framework, but according to our sources, there was confusion and uncertainty about the shape of the 2014-2017 Multi-Year Action Plan (MYAP) on Development and how it will relate to the high-profile G20 agenda on “financing for investment.”

Callaghan recommends that more information be made available about the working groups. Writing about the Framework Working Group, he concluded, “Little of the working group’s activities are made public and not much attention is paid to the material it produces.”

On the other hand, John Kirton, the co-director of the G20 Research Group, University of Toronto, opposes putting out the names and contact information of working group representatives, saying that there is a “danger” that outside groups “could flood them” with emails.

Those in civil society who would like to see more transparency counter by saying that corporations already have privileged access channels through which to lobby.

As for exactly what information from the working groups should be available, there appears to be only a low-key debate,  although this demand is often listed on pro-transparency menus.

One former government official who was involved for years with the G20, said it would be “extraordinarily naïve” to expect that to have documents disclosed in advance of the meetings.

Working Group Meetings Slightly Less Closed

While attendance to working group meetings is normally restricted to the official members, outside experts have been invited, although not as participants or regular observers.

“I think it is safe to say that the B20 and the T20 participate in the working groups with greater frequency that any civil society organizations.” commented Alexander.

No good tally exists of “outside” attendance at working group meetings.

A sampling from the G20 website finds a number of examples in 2013. The Development Working Group invited outside participants from various stakeholder groups to a seminar on food security in May. The press release on the October 2012 meetings of the Employment Working Group and the Anti-Corruption Working Group notes the presence of advisory group members. Along with the Business 20 and Civil 20 experts, the representatives of educational and academic institutions were invited to participate in the ACWG meeting. In particular, the representatives of the International Anti-Corruption Academy and Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption had a chance to make interventions.

Some sources said the participation of civil society groups, such as Transparency International (TI), improved the commitments made in St. Petersburg about corruption. TI officials met with the working group at each of their three meetings, said a TI official, noting that “this was a first.”

“Russia as hosts were not perfect working partners,” the TI official commented further, “We spent a lot of time trying to ensure our documents were not changed/were sent to the right people/were not subject to `editing committees.’ ”

Advisory Body Concerns

Another path for outsiders to participate is through the advisory bodies.

Formed only in the past several years, there is now a base of five — business representatives (B20), civil society (C20), labor organizations (L20), youth (Y20), and think tanks (T20)  — plus occasional others such as young entrepreneurs, girls and education institutions.

The five major `20s have prominent links to webpages across the bottom of the new Australian G20 site. The description of the B20 says, “Since the first business summit alongside the G20 2010 Summit in Toronto?, more than 400 recommendations have been put forward to G20 leaders.“

The composition of these groups changes annually, determined by the host country, which also funds them. In the workings on the Group of 8 and in the early years of the G20, civil society self-organized.

The host-influence structure can lead to controversy.

Under the Russian presidency, representatives of academia and business officials were given leading roles in the C20 group. Some civil society groups felt this was designed to dilute and stifle their voices. More concretely, at one point, NGOs were furious with a Russian-authored proposal urging government regulation of NGOs.

According to Alexander, “When governments choose their primary (NGO, think tank and academic) interlocutors, it has the effect of determining a) which issues will be covered; b) whether progressive or mainstream policies will be promoted; c) which international groups will wish to participate; d) which international groups will be invited; and e) which international groups will get funding to participate in events.”

Other elements in the treatment of civil society in Russia were consistent with domestic repression of public speech and CSOs going on at the time. The C20 wasn’t invited to a meeting with G20 leaders with “social partners,” but representatives of the B20 and L20 were.

On the other hand, Russia was praised for a promise to promote “an extensive outreach dialogue” and for issuing a detailed calendar – with more than 60 meetings and events, as Ella Kokotsis, of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, wrote.

Meetings with top officials very close to the summit date are prized by some, but others question their value. One CSO veteran of many G20 meetings person called them “a ritual.” The Korean presidency required the advance submission of questions and the answers were read out, he noted.

A former government official said “the outreach business has gone completely nuts” and called it “a big circus.” He continued, “The fact of the matter is that all of these sideshow events don’t have any impact whatsoever.”

Australians Form New ‘20s

The Australian presidency, which begins officially Dec. 1, has already created new ‘20s, now called “engagement groups” —  the usual five plus a “Queensland 20,” according to a website summary with many links. The Q20 is “a new peak group of Queensland business leaders to ensure the state reaps the maximum benefit from next year’s G20 Leaders’ Meeting.”

A 14-member C20 committee, chaired by Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia, has begun an online “deliberative process” to solicit input by Dec. 21 on “policy themes.” The plan also calls for the creation of working groups in December, each to be led by an Australian NGO and an international NGO.

The working groups will develop the C20’s recommendation for each of these policy themes. A crowdsourcing platform will be launched in late Jan/early February. A C20 Summit to be held in the second half of June 2014 in Melbourne, according to the new C20 website.

On the business side, the new B20 group is headed by Richard Goyder who runs Wesfarmers, Australia’s biggest private sector employer and also the country’s most significant conglomerate, according to an announcement of the 30-person board of Australian business persons.

The Australian government has a general G20 website, so far featuring various start-up activities including several community forums and a commemorative stamp competition.

A G20 “Taskforce” has been set up in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Taskforce will be hiring, according to the page, to help manage “a number of preparatory meetings and associated events.”

Advisory Groups Disclosure Limited

As their roles evolve, so too has information about the activities of the advisory groups.

In the past, this has been limited to names of members and information about schedules.

The C20 had an extensive page of its reports on the Russian G20 website. The chairmen of the seven working groups and their contact information were listed, although not the names of all the members.

However, the B20 in 2013, which had eight subgroups, did not provide even membership information.

So far, the Australian presidency has posted membership information for the `20s.

Disclosure of Commitments

“Communication has been a weakness of the G20,” according to Callaghan of the Lowy Centre in Australia.

The Australian government began with a Nov. 14 statement on the goals of its presidency, according to this Lowy Centre report.

The final documents in which the G-20 discloses its conclusions and the commitments of members have evolved and grown longer, Callaghan documents.

A 10 page communiqué was issued at the first meeting, in 2008. The 2013 St. Petersburg declaration was 27 pages, with over 200 pages of supporting material.

The communiques should “be simple” and “ring and sing,” Kirton of the University of Toronto commented, saying there have been almost no memorable lines.

The post-summit briefings do not usually add much, observers say, although there was franker than usually talk after the Russian summit to describe strong disagreements about the Syrian conflict.

Normally, however, there are constraints limit access to full information, such as briefing schedules that conflict and restrictions that prevent reporters from attending other countries’ briefings. Briefers tend to be reluctant to say too much about what was said by others, preferring to talk only about what their own officials said. As a result, getting a composite, complete picture is challenging.

A related complaint, articulated by Kirton, is the G20 practice of issuing documents only in English.

“It would be trivially easy for each host to translate all the documents from the summit into all the languages of the summit,” he told, adding, “And then they wonder why they have communications problem.”

The documents sometimes contain commitments that puzzle even those who have followed the process closely

The anticorruption commitments from Russia include two such initiatives — the Global Alliance for Integrity in Sports and a new G20 Network of Contact Points on denial of entry for corrupt officials.

Details presumably are being worked out, but the G20 provides no contact details or opportunities for engagement with civil society on these issues.

Monitoring of Commitments

Assessing whether the G20 countries have fulfilled their commitments, while considered central to establishing G20 credibility, has largely been left the G20 to outsiders, which may be for the best in some observer’s opinion.

Measuring performance, however, is considered an element of full transparency.

The G20 realizes it has a “big legitimacy problem,” Kirton commented, continuing, “The only way to dispel that skepticism is to have someone monitor them and see if they kept them or not.”

Kirton said in a 2012 lecture:

G20 leaders now know they need more than the polite report cards on their performance issued at their request by the international institutions they control and fund. Thus they have come to rely on the independent compliance assessments produced by the many students, scholars and professionals working voluntarily in the G20 Research Group. So if you want to make G20 governance work better — for yourself and for the world — come and join us in helping hold G20 governors to account for what they do.

 Measurement is complicated, he and others said, in part because of the vagueness of some commitments, and also because of the multiple options for measuring outcomes.

The G20 this year issued a compliance report on 67 development commitments made in 2010 in Seoul, finding that 33 had been completed.

Kokotsis, also of the G20 Research Group, wrote that “critics of the G20’s accountability performance primarily argue that the group’s lack of formal authority, coupled with an absence of key accountability components (such as baseline standards and accurate, shared information), make delivery on its commitments challenging at best.” She said that accountability mechanisms are improving and that “empirical findings further suggest that compliance is increasing over time and across diverse G20 policy issue areas.”

A major “mapping” of G20 decisions was done in a report issued in 2012 by Kirton and Maria Larionova, the head of the International Organizations Research Institute of the Higher School of Economic in Moscow. Other efforts at compliance reporting are listed on the G20 Resource Center site. When assessments are done, Kirton said, there is “not lots” of attention by the media unless a country gets a bad grade.

With many methodological debates ongoing, Callaghan suggested holding a G20 “accountability conference” in advance of the Brisbane summit at which business, civil society, labor organizations, think tanks and academics, along with international organizations could provide their views on the G-20’s performance.

Perhaps one recent promising sign was the release of a progress report by the anticorruption working group. (See “monitoring reports” here.) The report states:

6. As an important innovation in 2013, we have published this report, along with its chart and annex on a special page for the Working Group on ( ) along with a full set of the agreed Working Group products which have enduring value. This will help to disseminate our work and support implementation of best practices, as well as enable our citizens to hold their governments to account. In 2014, we will also publish the national responses to our annual questionnaire.

[Note: The link in the original document connects to the new Australian website, but gets a “page not found message.” The material remains available on The website where these documents were stored has now changed addresses to emphasize that it was the Russian presidency ( More on archival issues later.]

National Transparency Minimal

Although in theory the G-20 members are responsible to their citizenry for the positions they take at the meetings, there is typically little or nothing in the way of national public consultations or national accountability. Oversight is “almost nonexistent,” according to Alexander.

The governments only meet with well-connected groups and private sector representatives, according to those close to the process in several countries.

Overall, the profile of the G-20 ranks pretty low nationally.

Alexander advocates that all members should maintain websites that provide “a comprehensive view” of their engagement with the group, including points of contact for external stakeholders.

“Democratization of the G20 depends upon citizens and their elected officials having decisive input to G20 officials at the national level,” she wrote in recent report.

Another long-time participant in the G20 process was doubtful about the efficacy of pressure on G20, but said, “What’s important is doing your work back at home.”

Transparency International national chapters, for example, met with leaders in capitals, including with heads of state, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande. “We were happy with some outcomes and less happy with others.” A TI official recalled.

Archival Concerns

The G20 commissions the preparation of reports from dozens of international institutions such as the World Bank, the OECD and the IMF.

There is no mechanism to request such documents from the G20 and while it appears that some are disclosed, there’s no way to positively check.

For instance, in its report to the G20 St. Petersburg summit, the Study Group on Financing for Investment said it had commissioned 27 studies.  It is unclear whether some or all of these will be disclosed.

A section of the website for the Russian summit, Sept. 5-6, 2013, contains more than 40 reports from a variety of sources, some from after the summit. Another section links to several dozen reports connected with the working groups.

The rotating presidency and lack of a bureaucracy has meant that there is no official, organized repository of G-20 information aside from the annual summit websites.

This is termed “disruptive” by Alexander.

Into this breach came the G20 Information Centre at the University of Toronto.  The Centre is an encyclopedic assemblage of official G20 materials and related research articles, but is not a source for much information on the related `20s or for non-public information about the G20.

Another source of information is the G20 page of the Böll Foundation.

Australia recently created both a small national-oriented G20 website and the official G20 website.

The international site includes statements on the policy goals of the Australian presidency and the transcript a Dec. 1 press conference.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia “will be exercising the host’s right to invite some other countries,” naming Singapore and New Zealand.

According to the website, Australia also is inviting the 2014 Chair of ASEAN, Myanmar; Senegal of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development; and Spain. The Chair of the African Union (AU) will also be invited once the 2014 Chair has been announced by the AU in January 2014.

Abbott also said that there will be five Finance Ministers’ meetings in the course of the year, two of which will be in Australia, one in Cairns later in the year, the first in February in Sydney. There will be a Trade Ministers’ meeting in the middle of the year and in the first half of the year, and there will be an Employment Ministers’ meeting.

The members of the G20 are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, European Union.

The cost of hosting, Abbott said, would be “in the order of $400 million He stressed economic benefits of having 4,000 international delegates and 3,000 journalists visit Brisbane.”

G20 Fashion?

Most of the questions concerned unrelated national matters, but one reporter ventured into fashion:


Have you given any thought to the colour of the shirts that the leaders will be wearing? Pink at the moment is very popular in Queensland. Would that be under consideration?


There are a range of practices associated with different international gatherings and things like APEC; the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting typically has an APEC uniform and the East-Asia Summit typically has the uniform, but I’m not going to be focused on what people are wearing. I’m going to be focused on what people are saying and doing and bringing the best possible lessons and the best possible policy out of this G20 meeting.

The new Australian site ”library” provides about a dozen links, some not working, to past communiques, but not to the websites of previous G20 hosts.

It does not include contact information for Australian officials or the new Taskforce.

However, you can follow the new G20 presidency via Twitter: @G20Australia. Recent news: the announcement of a G20 postage stamp. became the 311th follower.

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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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