World Bank Denies Access to Document on Access Policy

5 April 2017

By Toby McIntosh

Requests for documents about the World Bank’s Board of Directors take many months to process and are often unsuccessful, even for very old documents, according to a FreedomInfo.org examination of Bank records.

The delays appeared to have prompted a proposal for “streamlining” the handling of such requests, but the fate of that initiative remains unclear.

Cryptic minutes of a November Board meeting say a streamlining recommendation was approved, but nothing about the substance. The Bank has denied a request by Freedominfo.org for the document containing the recommendation. FreedomInfo.org is appealing.

Two new examples surfaced recently that reveal how slowly the Bank acts on requests for Board documents.

It took more than a year for the Board to consider two such requests. On Aug. 4, 2016, the Board denied access to a combined total of 331 Board documents. The Executive Directors’ decision, and their rationale, is revealed in the minutes of the meeting and in a document recommending the denials, disclosed in March to FreedomInfo.org under the Bank’s Access to Information Policy.

Even very old documents are too sensitive to release, according to the Bank.

The Board in 2016 blocked the release of a 66-year-old Board transcript, according to Bank documents, denying access to a transcript of a 1951 Board meeting about Iran. Also withheld in 2016 were 46-year-old documents on Board “procedures.”

Default Secrecy

Although the Board has the discretion to release documents, it decided at the August meeting to continue its “default” assumption against disclosure. The reaffirmation came as the Board considered the pair of requests, which involved a variety of documents.

The author of one request (Number AI3791) primarily sought the statements made at meetings by Chinese Executive Directors, from the period of 1980-2015.

The Board decided against disclosure of 324 statements made by Executive Directors, relying on the “deliberative process” exemption. The Board further said that it would not exercise its discretion to release documents when “the overall benefits of disclosure outweigh the potential harm of disclosure,” an option provided under the AI Policy.

Seven other documents were withheld under the “Corporate Administrative Matters” exemption and the Board again decided against discretionary release.

Long Delay for Batch 2016-3

Although the Bank’s AI Policy sets a normal response time of within 20 working days, with possible extensions, the processing of requests for Board documents has taken considerably longer.

It took 15 months before the Board’s denial determination of request AI3791. A review of the Bank’s log of AI requests indicates that AI3791 was made in May of 2015. It is not summarized in the log, a choice available to requesters, but the gap in numbering indicates the date of its receipt. Under Bank policy, the names of requesters are not disclosed. Nor are the dispositions of requests available.

While the date of the smaller request is unclear, it apparently was lodged before April 2014, when the Bank began publishing summaries of requests, making it more than two years old before the Board responded.

The decision document about the two requests is labeled as “Batch 2016-3,” suggesting that other such bundles have been sent to the Board. A search of the Bank website, where the Aug. 4 document is posted, did not turn up any similar batches.

It took eight months for Freedominfo.org, in November of 2016, to get a requested 1971 transcript of a Bank Board meeting. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) It took an appeal to get an unredacted version.

The Bank’s 2015 report on its AI Policy says that 84 percent of requests were handled with the 20-day window, in an average of 7 days. The 16 percent that took longer required 81 days on average. The report does not segregate the data by requests for Board documents. More than 50 percent of the requests (482 in fiscal 2015) come from academia. “Of the 326 AI requests in FY 2015 that were properly addressed to the World Bank and had adequate information to enable the institution to respond, 93 percent (304 cases) were fulfilled in whole or in part,” according to the report.

Declassification of Older Documents Denied

Under Bank AI policy, standards are set for declassifying documents after 10 or 20 years, depending on the type of document. But recent experience suggests a reluctance to do so by Board, which can block declassification.

Notably, on May 16, 2016, the Bank denied access to a 1951 transcript of a Board meeting about Iran, based on two exemptions, for attorney-client privilege and protection of the deliberative process.

In a subsequent decision, the AI Committee, the internal staff body that handles appeals of denials, ruled that it lacked authority to override the Board’s action.

Another bar to disclosure of older documents surfaced in the August memo concerning the two requests brought before the Board.

Five other documents sought in request AI3791, have the security classification of “Confidential” and were made subject to the “corporate administrative matters exception.” As such, they “not eligible for declassification,” the Bank said.

The same position was invoked regarding  request AI2777, also considered in August. The requester asked to see two 46-year-old documents: a “Review of Board Procedures” and “Board Procedures,” both dating from 1971. These, too, were labeled “Confidential” and covered by the Corporate Administrative Matters exception, also making them “not eligible for declassification.”

The August document indicates that some other decisions were pending regarding the two requests

Fifteen other documents sought by AI2777 are Board papers with the security classification “Official Use Only” and were not considered at the Board meeting. A footnote about them states, “Under the AI Policy, the prerogative to disclose these documents is held by the Access to Information Committee.”

A footnote indicates that 71 other Board records sought by AI3791 are eligible for declassification because they are more than 20 years old. At the time, whether to declassify and release them was still under discussion. According to the footnote, “Following Board-approved procedures, they will be presented for Board consultation and to decide on whether or not to exercise of the Bank’s prerogative to restrict.”

Streamlining Policy Unclear

If new procedures for handling requests for Board documents have been approved, as suggested by minutes of a November 2016 meeting, the Bank is not saying so.

A “streamlining” proposal was considered at a Nov. 10 Board meeting, with the minutes stating that the Executive Directors approved a staff recommendation, but the thrust of that recommendation is not described.

The minutes of the meeting state only:

The Executive Directors recorded their approval on November 10, 2016 of the recommendation contained in paragraph 6 of the document entitled “Access to Information Policy Streamlining Procedures for Disclosure of Board Records” (R2016-0213 [IDA/R2016- 0256], dated November 2, 2016).

FreedomInfo.org requested the referenced document, but was told that it is being withheld because “it is covered by the “Corporate Administrative” and “Deliberative” exceptions under the Policy,” according to March 22 Bank letter.

Informal inquiries to staff members about the nature of the approved streamlining change were not answered. The Bank’s AI page does not indicate any change was made.

FreedomInfo.org has appealed the denial, objecting the use of the exceptions and protesting the failure to disclose portions of the document.

A 2010 Bank staff “interpretation” makes redaction optional, stating that “the Bank is not prevented from redacting restricted information on a case-by-case basis if it chooses to do so”. FreedomInfo.org says redaction should apply to the Board document in question.

A 2014 decision by the AI Appeals Board, a panel of four of independent outside experts (ruling favorably on a matter brought by FreedomInfo.org) addressed the 2010 interpretation, commenting, “In our judgment this makes it clear that the Bank has a duty to consider redaction in appropriate cases.”

FreedomInfo.org, in its appeal on the streamlining document, also has questioned whether the opacity of the minutes is consistent with the Bank AI Policy pledge to issue minutes of meetings.


 

 

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Filed under: IFTI Watch

ABOUT 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).
Contact: freeinfo@gwu.edu or
1-(703) 276-7748