Limited Progress Toward Measuring SDG 16.10.2

1 December 2016

By Toby McIntosh

Measuring the implementation of access to information laws is among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, but how to accomplish this task remains very much a work in progress.

The uncertainties include not only how such a measurement system will be developed and what it will look like, but also whether countries will be required to follow a uniform reporting template.

The continuing ambiguity is evident in an email from Guy Berger, Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, the agency charged with developing ideas for assessing SDG Target 16.10 on access to information. Asked by about plans for creating an assessment template, Berger wrote:

It is very early days here, so it is not clear if this is indeed a scenario at this point. It depends not only on conceptual work bearing in mind diverse capacities and possibilities in different countries, but also on whether the voluntary reporting process encourages the use of standard templates.  These are issues still in process.

Berger’s comments reflect several unresolved questions. One is what metrics would best capture efforts to implement access to information laws. Another question is whether UN member countries will be asked to follow any agreed-upon reporting template.

UNESCO is charged with overseeing SDG Target 16.10, which states: “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” The UN General Assembly adopted the SDGs in September of 2015.

UNESCO has submitted “metadata” to the United Nations Statistical Commission, the UN body overseeing how to measure progress toward achievement of all the 231 SDG indicators. At this stage, Indicator 16.10.2 is rated optimistically as “Tier 2”the category for indicators thathave an existing established methodology, however, data are not easily available.” Tier 3 indicators “do not yet have an internationally agreed methodology.”


On access to information, UNESCO has said it aims to cover three subjects:

– whether the country has adopted guarantees;

– the extent to which those guarantees are in line with international standards; and

– what steps the country has taken to implement the guarantees.

In preparation for a Sept. 19 “expert” meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, UNESCO again outlined potential methodologies for measuring the implementation of access to information laws (text). (See previous report.)

Few FOI experts attended the session, deterred by a lack of travel funding. One outcome was a commitment by two leaders the FOI Advocates Network to invite assessment ideas from its members. FOIANet facilitates communication among FOI activists and experts worldwide. The notice requesting input reflected guidance from UNESCO:

  • We have been told that there should be a maximum of ten questions.
  • Questions should, in general, be closed/objective rather than open-ended/subjective (so as to keep the exercise as scientific, accurate and comparable as possible).
  • Questions should aim to probe a number of different implementation measures. These could include institutional measures (have you appointed information officers and/or an oversight body), procedural (what percentage of requests are answered within the legal time limits) and more systemic issues (what systems have you put in place to collect information about how implementation is going).
  • The questions should probe both proactive and request-driven implementation measures.

Summary and Recommendations

A summary of the submissions by FOIANet members was prepared.

The questions proposed were are divided into three categories:

  1. Institutional: to assess what institutional measures have been put in place to support implementation.
  2. Systemic: to assess wider or systemic implementation support measures.
  3. Performance: to assess actual implementation performance at the level of individual public authorities.

On Dec. 9, 16.10.2 is scheduled to be the topic of a 50-minute panel during the Open Government Partnership summit in Paris. “This important panel will examine how best to measure transparency with a focus on measuring whether information is really and truly available in practice, be it through access to information (FOI) laws or proactive publication (open data),” according to a description.

Separately, the OGP’s planned “Paris Declaration” includes an “Action Point” on access to information, including several specifics on implementation. Governments and civil society organizations are being asked to sign on to all or parts of the Declaration. (See text below).

UNESCO’s Plans Reports

UNESCO is planning to pay more attention to access to information in two planned reports in 2017, but neither report will evaluate national access laws or their implementation, according to officials.

UNESCO is “working to influence how UNESCO’s independently-produced World Trends in Freedom of Expression & Media Development report can use our monitoring framework to gather data on public access to information,” according to Fackson Banda, UNESCO Programme Specialist.

In an email to Banda amplified: “So far, the report’s scope has been on compiling data on numbers of countries that have adopted FOI legislation. We want to broaden that scope to include the aspect of how such legislation mirrors international human rights standards on public access to information and how it actually works in national jurisdictions (implementation mechanisms).”

UNESCO’s Berger, however, said that this won’t mean country-by-country assessments. “The World Trends report only does regional aggregation and has a global focus,” he wrote.

Budget Constraints

Asked if the efforts to expand the report’s scope would entail a uniform system of gathering information, such as a series of questions on implementation, Berger replied: “There is no particular new system being put in place, partly due to budgetary issues. So, the research will work with what different sources are available.”

Berger explained further: “In short, the monitoring will rely on existing (extrabudgetary) budgets, mechanisms and partnerships as a minimum, with any expansion dependent on further extrabudgetary contributions. To the extent that national governments can reprioritise their spending and mobilise budget and systems for their own monitoring of 16.10.2, this clearly would be a valuable contribution to the global monitoring information base – which would not require extra funding by UNESCO.”

The current UNESCO budget predates the Statistical Commission agreement on the 16.10.2 indicator and hence does not provide for additional monitoring. Berger said,UNESCO continues to experience severe financial constraints, and there will unlikely be any additional funding in the next budget for 16.10.2.”

Creating a Standard

UNESCO continues to gather information for an SDG Progress Report, according to Banda.

Banda said UNESCO “will soon be reaching out to the participants of the Jakarta workshop to provide UNESCO with any data they may have, as part of the process of helping UNESCO to consolidate all the bits of information for the UN SDG progress report next year.”

He continued:

“So, between January and June 2017, we expect UNESCO to collate data from its partners and other sources, including internal ones (e.g. World Trends report, etc.), and generate a draft report, framed in terms of the UN SDG Progress Report. This is a pithy report that includes a storyline emerging from the data, the data profile itself, and gaps in the data.

We also expect that the storyline and the data will serve as an important backdrop against the second installment of the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) on 28 September, 2017, and we expect to draw attention to any gaps in the data – and the dominant narrative/story – as part of that celebration.

Such a plan would contrast with the concept for UNESCO’s first IDUAI celebration this year, which included speakers discussing the value of information for achieving the 17 SDG major goals, with limited discussion of access to information laws or implementation. The featured speaker was the president of Ghana, a country without a FOI law.

Experts Look Ahead asked a number of transparency advocates who have been closely following the SDG process “what you would like to see happen going forward?”

Bill Orme, the UN representative for the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), said “monitoring progress on the SDGs has to be a hybrid of country-driven reporting and accepted international data and definitional standards.”

“This gets quite tricky with governance goals like SDG 16-10,” he continued, “with specific terms and objectives that have never before been defined or measured in any official intergovernmental process.”

“We need clarity and consensus on what we mean by `implementation’ of access-to-information laws, with UNESCO as the designated UN agency for this SDG target taking the lead.”

In addition, Orme said, “The key thing is that to not only measure but actively incentive progress, with reporting templates that are standardized enough to permit meaningful comparisons among countries over time, but flexible enough to be relevant to a Sweden as well as to a Sierra Leone.”

Making a case for flexibility, Orme said: “We have to recognize that countries have different starting points on this path, but what they all share is that they all can do better and go further.  Compliance with the SDG16-10.2 indicator should not be assessed in a binary ‘yes or no’ fashion but rather as a continual 15-year process aimed at making public access to information a universal reality.”

Orme called attention to “the two complementary elements of SDG 16.10 – ‘ensuring public access to information’ and ‘protecting fundamental freedoms.’ ” They are “are integrally linked,” in Orme’s view, “and we cannot assess progress on one without the other.”

“It would be best if UNESCO and OHCHR could collaborate on their monitoring of the two 16-10 indicators with a regular joint report on progress toward the target as a whole, so that connection doesn’t get lost,” according to Orme.

Core Standards Seen as Critical

“What is essential is that some reasonably objectively verifiable core standards are agreed for the Indicators for Target 16.10,” commented Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy.

He continued: “Otherwise, the question of whether or not a State has achieved it risks becoming a subjective battleground and much of the value of having this Target will be lost. But whatever States do, civil society actors will certainly come up with their own systems for assessing progress on this Target.”

Gilbert Sendugwa, Coordinator & Head of Secretariat for the Africa Freedom of Information Centre, responded with a reference to the SDG’s predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). He said:

One of the most important lessons of SDGs from MDGs is that access to information is important to realise development goals. Getting access to information laws quickly passed and implemented will significantly contribute to attainment of all SDGs. Programmes for implementation of the right to information should be expedited especially in Africa where this gap is apparent.

Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe, told, “It is imperative that we get this right, and the upcoming meeting in Paris gives us a chance to discuss this with all the key actors in the RTI community.”

She also commented: “We need sophisticated measures of the legal framework which properly evaluates the quality of the law. There is also an urgent need to advance on measuring levels of transparency in practice, which takes resources but should be feasible with IGOs, CSOs and donors working together.”

OGP Declaration

The text on the access to information provision in the OGP Paris Declaration:

  1. Access to information
    Partners joining will implement our access to information laws to a high standard by training public officials, raising awareness, ensuring good record keeping and management, and improving rates of timely responses to requests. Partners will support the existence of effective appeals mechanisms and independent oversight bodies and will measure and report regularly on compliance with the Access to Information (ATI) law.Partners will also expand proactive disclosure of public information, particularly that needed for participation in and accountability of public decision-making. Partners will work toward ensuring that all government information is published in formats that the public can easily locate, understand, and use, and in formats that facilitate reuse.  As the right of access to information is a transformative right and critical for sustainable development, partners will make particular efforts to ensure that comprehensible and meaningful information reaches all sectors of society, including the most marginalized populations, such as women.  Partners will commit to sharing tools that they have developed to improve implementation and compliance of access to information laws.As access to information laws are crucial to guarantee the public’s right to seek and receive information, partners-together with the OGP Access to Information Working Group-will assist OGP countries that do not have access to information legislation to adopt legislation, will support the improvement of existing laws guided by emerging standards on access to public information, and will promote good practices, so as to increase the availability of public information.
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