World Bank Assesses Access As Part of Open Data Studies

15 December 2016

By Toby McIntosh

The World Bank evaluates national access to information (ATI) regimes as one of many factors to indicate whether governments are prepared for an open data initiative, according to a review.

The scoring system for ATI is generous, but some of the assessments are quite critical.

ATI is just one of many elements considered as part of the “Readiness Assessment Tool,” but its largely unknown inclusion could offer opportunities for ATI activists.

The impetus for the tool’s creation was to determine whether a country is ready for an open data initiative and to guide its efforts. The User Guide stresses, “This is a diagnostic and planning tool, it is not a measurement tool.” The tool was described by a Bank official as “a catalytic instrument.”

Almost 40 governments have volunteered to undergo analysis, which is usually done by Bank staff with help from government officials. Completing the review doesn’t necessarily result in funding for an open data initiative from the Bank or other sources, but is considered a useful prerequisite.

Only twelve reports have been publicly released, according to the Bank’s home page. Governments can veto release of the reports under the Bank’s public information policy. Some countries are reluctant to have their weaknesses exposed, a Bank official said.

Use of the tool may have peaked, but four or fine reviews are underway, including in Haiti and Mauritania. Malaysia, which does not have an ATI law, recently announced its intention to undergo an evaluation, according to a media report confirmed by Bank officials.

The comprehensive evaluations are “based on eight dimensions considered essential for an Open Data Initiative that builds a sustainable Open Data ecosystem.” One of these dimensions is the “Policy/Legal Framework.” This area has seven subcategories, one being access to information, which is judged to be of “very high” importance along with three others subcategories.

The eight dimensions are: senior leadership, legal and policy framework, institutional structures, government data management practices, societal demand for open data, civic engagement and capabilities for open data, funding and “national tech and skills infrastructure.”

Most of the reports include “action plans” intended to guide governments going forward.

Pressure Point?

The assessment tool and the process of creating it may be relevant to ATI activists in several ways.

  • Because the evaluators are expected to get civil society input, the process could provide an opportunity for engagement on ATI issues.
  • The recommendations could be candidates for inclusion in the National Action Plans prepared by members of the Open Government Partnership.
  • The analysis could serve as a guide for World Bank activities regarding national ATI regimes. The Bank does not otherwise assess ATI performance.

Scoring Light on ATI Implementation

The grading on ATI is liberal.

Having an access law on the books counts, but the quality of the law and the record of implementation is of less importance.

The methodology recommends a yellow rating on this aspect to countries that have a version of an access to information law, even though its implementation may be weak,” according to Indira Chand, a senior communications officer at the Bank. A yellow rating means that “evidence of favorable conditions is mixed.” (Green is the top score, followed by yellow and red.)

The methodology states, “A YELLOW rating for Policy/Legal can be based on a combination of factors, but will likely include at least the existence of a law on access to information (or its equivalent) and privacy protections reflected in legal instruments, even if their enforcement or implementation has a mixed record.”

The lack of an ATI law doesn’t mean you can’t have an open data program, said Amparo Ballivian, one of the Bank architects of the assessment tool.

Reviews Sometimes Quite Critical

An examination of the five reports completed in 2015 reveals some quite critical comments on ATI.

The Kyrgyz Republic got a yellow rating on ATI in its evaluation (dated July 2015 and posted online in February 2106). However, the report states:

Access to information is established in the Constitution and in a mature law. However consistency in application and absence of clear redress mechanisms may form an obstacle. Especially the non-alignment with the State Secret act is an issue.

These and other more detailed criticisms were not enough to lower Kyrgyzstan’s score to red, which “means there is evidence for absence of readiness.”

Concerning the “Policy/Legal Framework” overall, the report ranks Kyrgyzstan as yellow for six of the seven subcategories of that section.

Overall, Kyrgyzstan got yellow on six of the eight dimensions, and a green (“with concern”) on the other two. The report concludes, “Kyrgyzstan is in a position to move forward quickly with an Open Data Initiative” and makes a number of suggestions. The action plan is not available because it has not yet been approved.

Action Items Included

In some other reports, the ATI evaluations are also pointed, though sometimes quite general. The assessments typically devote only a few paragraphs to ATI.

The report on Sierra Leone gave a yellow score for the policy/legal dimension. On ATI it commented critically:

Further, the slow progress on implementation of the access to information legislation questions whether there is sufficient capacity and political will for an open data initiative to succeed. The Government is aware of this, and there is a growing consensus that data management, disclosure and record keeping must be strengthened as vital assets for the development of the country.

A toughly worded report on Tajikistan says in part:

Apart from the weak RTI legislation interviewees for this assessment reported weak implementation of the law and missing law enforcement. In practice Government Agencies often refuse the right to access information granted by the law by referring to the Law of State Secrecy as a justification for their denial.

Tajikistan got a “yellow/red” rating on ATI.

Uganda (rated yellow) was urged to pass an open data law. One point made in the report:

First, A2I is triggered by a formal request being made for specific information. Particularly in the case of data, it is difficult for users to know precisely what to request without prior knowledge of what data the government has or what state they are in. As a result, many A2I requests or potential requests remain unfulfilled. Second, materials provided under A2I are typically provided only to the person who requested them. In the case of data, which if in digital form could be provided to many users online, this means that many users are deprived of the full benefits of public information. Finally, the A2I Act does not set a clear standard for how data should be provided. If in something less than machine-readable form, it is often difficult or time consuming for users to make use of what they have received.

The report on Serbia, whose ATI performance was favorably reviewed, suggested amending the access law to include a “reuse” provision.

The action plan also recommended, “Having a central overview of which databases exist where, and in which form, as well as which databases are currently being implemented helps build a roadmap for publishing open data sets where possible.”

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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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