World Bank Sparks Discussion of RTI Implementation

6 November 2014

The World Bank is exploring how it can encourage better implementation of right to information laws.

One idea on the table at a Nov. 5 forum in Washington was to create an international standard about what governments should report on their compliance with RTI laws. Also discussed was to develop a set of international principles on implementation, possibly in conjunction with the Open Government Partnership.

The identified challenge was that implementation of RTI laws “often struggles,” observed Robert Beschel, lead public sector specialist at the Global Governance Practice. The Bank is “agnostic” about the potential role an international standard could play,” he said, but is trying to determine “whether the Bank can facilitate a push in this direction.”

A variety of suggestions to modify the reporting and standards ideas, and comments about whether they would be effective, surfaced in the presentations and ensuing discussion. Other proposals were advanced, such as investigating what motivates good implementation and encouraging RTI champions within governments.

A recent Bank report on reporting about RTI compliance, highlighting varied and weak practices, was intended to start “a global dialogue on reporting standards.” (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) “It is very important to get the information so you can improve the process if it is not working,” said Stephanie E. Trapnell, a Bank specialist in open government and accountability, at a webinar (recording).

Not everyone was convinced better reporting should be the top priority.

Speaker Counsels Caution

One speaker at the forum was Laura Neuman, who has spent five years developing the 65-item set of indicators of national implementation. She is the director of the Global Access to Information Initiative at the Carter Center in Atlanta, which conducted international consultations and did pilot studies to create an “Information Assessment Tool” unveiled in April. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Neuman was cautious about whether writing international standards is needed, saying that principles on implementation exist in a variety of places. However, she said an update might be useful, as suggested by Victoria L. Lemieux,?Senior Public Sector Specialist, who is leading the World Bank’s effort in this area.

Bank officials said the Bank could not afford to underwrite widespread use of the Carter Center’s indicators, which are designed as a tool to identify “good practices” and diagnose the causes of implementation problems. The process of using the Carter Center tool is complex, and is estimated to cost between $80,000- $100,000 to evaluate a country (assuming coverage of 20 agencies).

The Carter Center has conducted three rounds of pilot studies, and will soon release the results of several reports on countries using the final version of the system, Neuman said. A newly added component for the effort, Neuman said, will be multi-stakeholder meetings about the findings.

Discussing the complications of setting standards, Neuman said that determining what is best practice is not always self-evident, pointing to debates over the comparative value of centralized or decentralized administration. She stressed that “context” matters.

Still, she said, government agencies are “hungry” for standards and agency officials, particularly in countries with new laws, want to know what they should be doing.

Neuman voiced several reservations about putting major emphasis on reporting performance data. “I don’t think the numbers alone can be used as a proxy for performance,” she said.

She pointed to several measurement issues: including how to decide what qualifies as a request and how to account for proactive publication. She said thought should be given to who would use such reports and whether the effort would be worthwhile. Another concern is that an implementation standard could be the “lowest common denominator.”

OGP Seen as Possible Forum

Later discussion at the forum focused less on the reporting standard idea and more on the pros and cons of setting international implementation principles and how to achieve substantial, legitimizing buy-in.

Bank officials raised the possibility of creating a new multilateral organization on the topic, or using an existing one, particularly the OGP.

Access to information is the focus of one of five OGP working groups designed to catalyze efforts in various areas and to assist governments.

The access group issued a work plan in March, largely focused on providing help to participating governments. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) Since then the group has made not further public statements. It facilitated an in-person dialogue between RTI experts from Georgia and Mexico. About 130 persons signed up as interested in the group.

Like some of the other working groups, it lacks any funding.

Leading the access to information working group are officials from Mexico’s Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection (IFAI) and Neuman from the Carter Center.

At a recent OGP Steering Committee meeting, the leaders of the five working groups sought clarification on their roles in order “to facilitate and amplify their efforts,” (See previous FreedomInfo.org article.) That discussion is continuing.

Sendugwa Discusses Impediments

Gilbert Sendugwa, Coordinator and Head of Secretariat for the Africa Freedom of Information Centre, said implementation is now a top priority along with campaigning for more laws in Africa and establishing regional support mechanisms.

He identified three causes of poor implementation: limited capacity on both the demand and the supply side, lack of political will and provision of the laws,

“You need systems to implement the rights; you need procedures; you need resources; you need people,” he said.

To build demand, he said, more training is needed for civil society and government officials. Training can also strengthen public sector responsiveness, he said, also stressing that oversight mechanisms are often weak.

Training in Africa has increased both the number of requests and agency responsiveness, he said.

Sendugwa agreed to that the standards for national reporting of RTI efforts need improvement.

Another speaker, Juan Pablo Guerrero, Director of the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency and the former head of Mexico’s IFAI, stressed the role of a strong institutional framework, particularly an information commission.

Discussion Wide-Ranging

World Bank officials said they are in an information-gathering mode, and plan to meet with information commissioners and government officials to discuss incentives for improve implementation further before making a follow-up proposal for funding.

Better reporting and/or implementation principles are two possible initiatives that were discussed at the Nov. 5 meeting, along with a variety of other suggestions.

Several archivists attending the Nov. 5 forum urged more attention to improving record keeping.

Guerrero noted that in Mexico, passage of a law “had a great impact in organizing archives and recordkeeping.”

Attention was also drawn to the challenges of changing bureaucratic culture, supporting RTI champions, and motivating requesters and government officials.

Measuring implementation not by request and response levels, but by outcomes, was discussed. Making the process of getting information and providing accessible information to different kinds of users was also discussed.

Bank Research Activities

The Bank has been working on its own set of RTI implementation indicators, which will be unveiled at a Nov. 19 webinar and be the basis for evaluations in 5-10 countries, funding permitting.

After having started several years ago with a 120-item list, the Bank has pared down its indicators to make them easier to use and more functional and easier, a Bank official said.

The Bank system differs from the Carter Center system because it focuses less on the “plumbing” – the public systems that make RTI administration work.

The Bank has tried to synthesize the lessons of precious case studies to isolate the drivers of effectiveness, including political will and civil society activism. It has published Case Studies on Implementation, covering 12 countries. The bank is sponsoring a series of webcasts on information policy and maintains a webpage on transparency and information management.

A Bank Working Paper by Jesse Worker with Carole Excell describes “Requests and Appeals Data in Right to Information Systems” in Brazil, India, Jordan, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, United Kingdom, and the United States. A key finding is that “the state of data collection and reporting by oversight agencies is far from complete or standard.”

The Bank’s research work is being supported by the Nordic Trust Fund, “a knowledge and learning initiative to help the World Bank develop a more informed view on human rights.”

More than 100 trust funds of many kinds support about 10 percent of the Bank’s operations. (See FreedomInfo.org reports on trust fund transparency.) The Nordic Trust disbursed $2.5 million in the Bank fiscal year of 2011 (ending July 1 2011), according to latest report on the Bank website.

The Bank is increasingly unable to set “conditions” on its loans that would require better implementation of RTI laws, Bank officials said. The Bank does support national efforts relating to RTI laws, often underwriting technical support, particularly to help in drafting laws. One official estimated that 20 such efforts are ongoing.

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