Four Global FOI Challenges For 2017, Including SDG 16

5 January 2017

By Toby McIntosh

Freedom of information activists will face at least four challenges in 2017 that will test their ability to act in a globally organized way.

Eight new FOI regimes were created in 2016, for a total of 115, demonstrating continuing success at the national level.  The tougher, but less visible, national task is implementing FOI laws.

The observations here concern international challenges, with local ramifications.

First challenge, creating an international standard for measuring FOI implementation, as called for in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Second, re-invigorating interaction with multilateral organizations. This challenge has many parts, including beefing up the FOI-related work of the Open Government Partnership and responding to a World Bank invitation to provide input on its pro-FOI efforts.

Third, building functional political relationships with other “open” movements.

Fourth, restoring donor enthusiasm for national and international FOI efforts.

Create an SDG Standard

Negotiators advocating for access to information (ATI) managed, with considerable effort, to ensure that ATI is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They fought not only for the goal of having RTI laws, but also for having strong laws that are well implemented.

They won the day, but now the victory needs to be made concrete.

How to measure implementation (SDG 16.10) remains the main question unanswered. Ideas have been proposed, with strengths and weaknesses, but the process lacks energy and leadership. The UN agency charged with helping devise the measuring system, UNESCO, has limited resources for the task. The way forward is unclear. No deliberative meetings are planned.

Creating an implementation standard should be a uniting, fascinating and rewarding challenge for which the FOI community has the combined experience. In many countries, nongovernmental organizations regularly assess implementation through a variety of methods. A credible SDG measurement tool could supplement these efforts.

Work With Multilateral Organizations 

In early 2016, the World Bank jettisoned three staffers who worked on encouraging national FOI laws, almost completely eliminating its central FOI capabilities. Following an international protest by 130 nongovernmental organizations, the Bank asserted a continuing commitment to FOI and agreed to meet with FOI activists in early 2017.

This invitation provides an opening to help define Bank FOI activities. (Other international financial institutions that address governance issues also could benefit from ideas and a push.)

Related activism is needed concerning the OGP, where having a FOI law isn’t required for membership. The membership standard may get strengthened through the OGP “refresh” processes now under way, but it’s a work in progress. Also, a new trust fund for the OGP is in the offing, which could help provide new resources. These efforts deserve oversight from the FOI community.

A broader issue is whether member governments will address FOI seriously in their OGP National Action Plans. National FOI commitments have lacked much weight. This in an issue primarily for national FOI activists, but the OGP ethic of international cooperation should come into play.

Embrace Other Open Movements

Many flavors of transparency have blossomed in recent decades. The creation of dozens of “open” causes has shed light to many dark areas.

For the most part FOI activists have welcomed as complementary such openness activism, on data, budgets, contracts, and much more. Similarly, openness activists of various stripes have recognized the value of legal transparency guarantees. However, there have been moments of jealousy and condescension on both sides.

In 2016, activists in open movements appeared to speak more candidly about their frustrations. “Techno-optimism has given way to realism,” wrote an open budget activist. “Over-politeness is the fatal flaw in the open data movement,” opined an open data veteran. A U.S. open data coalition is pushing legislation to accelerate government data disclosures.

A growing dialogue concerns how to connect transparency efforts with specific social causes. There’s more awareness that transparency has a political dimension. Donors who embraced transparency-related technology are scrutinizing both theory and practice. (See summary of studies commissioned by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative.)

The practical value of more cooperation between open data and ATI activists was expressed recently in articles by Michael Cañares, a Jakarta open data activist, and Zara Rahman, who worked in both the FOI and open data areas.

One of the recommendations reached by the experts who TA&I consulted was: “Building larger movements and coalitions.”

Make the Case for More FOI Funding

As FreedomInfo.org tracks national FOI movements, activists rarely complain that their work is poorly funded, but the fact is that their advocacy is done on a shoestring.

No study has been conducted on overall international donor support for FOI, but considerable anecdotal evidence suggests a diminution in funding.

The reduced funding comes at time when governments are facing demands for better implementation of ATI laws. The costs involved are not insubstantial, involving such tasks as improving national record-keeping, creating online FOI request systems and disclosing information proactively.

To better compete for funding in the crowded open governance space, FOI needs to be promoted as not only a human right, but also as a creator of social value. Integration with other openness causes can help made the case. The intensified interest in measuring value creates real challenges, but they are not insurmountable.

 

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