Attention Shifts to Measuring UN Access to Info Indicator

17 March 2016

By Toby McIntosh

Q. What’s next now that “access to information” has been included as an “indicator” of progress toward sustainable development?

A: Developing the indicators for the indicator.

Work on that challenge is expected to intensify now that the United Nations Statistical Commission on March 11 approved access as one of 230 indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The access indicator has two key facets: adoption and implementation of access regimes. It states:

16.10.2 Number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information

The path forward to final adoption by the General Assembly in September seems fairly smooth. So attention is shifting to how adoption and implementation will be measured, and by whom.

The effort probably will be led by UNESCO’s Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, which already has been preparing ideas.

FreedomInfo.org has received UNESCO’s latest thinking about how to assess both the two components. The draft plans include half a dozen specific measurements. These would assess the quality of government access regimes and evaluate government effort and performance.

Sensitivity Urged

There is concern among some pro-access advocates that too much immediate debate over the details of measurement could imperil the inclusion of access as an indicator.

“Don’t be too critical of the official process right now, because it’s delicate,” cautioned Victoria Lemieux, a World Bank staff member who has closely followed the issue and works on FOI implementation issues. There continues to be some “political sensitivity” around the “governance” indicators of which access to information in one, said another observer.

Others, including UN officials, doubted that the decisions made so far will be revisited. “…[T]he measurements accepted last week are expected to be adopted formally as proposed,” according to a blog post by Bill Orme, the UN Representative of the Global Forum for Media Development. The Statistical Commission’s resolution on indicators goes next to UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and finally to the General Assembly in September.

A working group of the Statistical Commission will continue to be involved and is scheduled to meet in late March in Mexico City. Its attention, will be turning to follow-up subjects, including which bodies will have responsibility for the each indicator. UNESCO is expected to be designated as the “custodian” of 16.10.2, several observers told FreedomInfo.org.

One UN source suggested, however, that multiple custodians could be involved based in part on who produces the datasets that would be used.

Process for Building Measurement Tool Evolving

A UNESCO official, Fackson Banda, told FreedomInfo.org that UNESCO will be the custodian “along with others,” mentioning the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Right, the International Labour Organization and the World Bank.

Banda said that the process for creating the indicator’s measuring tools will be inclusive. He echoed the concern that discussion of the indicators “not preempt the UN process at this stage.”

“Discussions are still ongoing as to the collaborative planning regarding delivery on Target 16.10,” according to Banda. “Civil society actors are also going to be an important part of the delivery mechanism,” he said.

Further complicating the calculus is the prospect that governments may be charged with self-monitoring their progress, a determination not yet made. “Though UNESCO would be the international agency tracking progress under this indicator, its reports would be based on assessments from national sources,” Orme wrote.

Orme continued:

Assessing and ensuring compliance should be a nationally managed process – otherwise, it simply won’t work. But this cannot just be an official process, based solely on governments’ own self-interested self-reporting; it must include the independent evaluations of journalists, civic leaders and legal experts as well, grounded in an understanding of international standards.

More Than Two Tools

UNESCO is already expanding on its ideas for measuring progress on the access to information front.

Banda told FreedomInfo.org that “with respect to collecting data for public access to information, we intend to go beyond simple counting of how many countries had enacted FOI laws.”

The metadata UNESCO has submitted, he said, includes “such nuanced aspects as:

(a) whether a country (or at the global level, the number of countries) has constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information;

(b) the extent to which such national guarantees reflect ‘international agreements’ (e.g. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc.); and

(c) the implementation mechanisms in place for such guarantees, including the following aspects:

(i) Government efforts to publicly promote the right to information;

(ii) citizens’ awareness of their legal right to information and their ability to utilise it effectively; and

(iii) the capacity of public bodies to provide information upon request by the public.”

Defining Capacity

“Capacity” could potentially be measured, Banda elaborated, in terms of the following:

1)  Human resources available to respond to queries, for example

2)  Financial resources available, to facilitate the overall work of the public bodies concerned

3)  The length of time it might take between receiving a request for information and receiving it, which are ultimately linked to the two above

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