World Bank Simplifies Process for Access Decisions

18 July 2017

By Toby McIntosh

The World Bank Board has altered its procedures for handling requests for certain, typically older, Executive Board documents, possibly hastening their disclosure, or nondisclosure.

The decision, made late last year, subtly alters the handling of requests for documents that are “eligible” for disclosure, meaning that there is no exemption that would bar their declassification. Practically speaking this usually refers to decades-old documents. Not all documents can be declassified, but the Access to Information Policy (AI) allows declassification after 5, 10 or 20 years, depending on the document.

Nevertheless, under the 2010 Access to Information Policy (footnote 24), the Board has the prerogative not to disclose eligible Board records if it determines that such disclosure is likely to cause harm that outweighs the benefits of disclosure.

Even very old documents can be deemed too sensitive to release. The Board in 2016 blocked the release of a 66-year-old Board transcript, a 65-year-old transcript of a Board meeting about Iran and a 46-year-old document on Board “procedures.”

Fighting Delays

The new procedural reform is designed to reduce long delays in the processing of requests for such Board documents by cutting out a few steps on the process.

All requests were, and are, circulated for review to the Executive Directors to learn if there are objections to disclosure.

Under the new practice, records receiving no comments will be automatically disclosed. If the Bank management or a Director objects to the release of a document, it will be made part of a “request package” circulated to a key Board committee (COGAM – the Committee on Governance and Executive Directors’ Administrative Matters) for approval on an “absence-of-objection” basis. Previously, packages of recommendations, called batches, were placed periodically on the COGAM agenda.

Under the new policy, a COGAM discussion will be scheduled only if a director disagrees with a disclosure recommendation. This appears unlikely, since “typically” the directors go along with what the Bank staff and other directors suggest, according to a Bank document

That document, outlined potential changes was prepared for the Board in October. FreedomInfo.org requested the document but the Board voted not to provide it. The Bank denial letter cited exemptions for “Corporate Administrative Matters” and “Deliberative Information.” No appeals of Board disclosure decisions are permitted.

FreedomInfo.org obtained a copy of the document independently.

Most Eligible Documents Declassified

The vast majority of requests for “eligible” documents are approved, according figures reported in the document.

Since the adoption of Board procedures on AI requests in 2011, the Board has made decisions regarding 1,021 “eligible” Board records sought across 34 AI requests, according to the Bank staff document sent to the Board on Oct. 26. The largest request considered was for 837 statements made by Executive Directors, according to a footnote. The report does not describe the outcome in that matter and Bank letters to requesters are not disclosed.

Overall, the report says, “Concerns of Executive Directors were expressed about the disclosure of nine records under one AI request while management expressed concerns about thirty-one records across two AI requests,” the document reports.

“Typically” the Board has ratified such objections, according to the document.

“Under these procedures, every concern expressed by Executive Directors resulted in the Board deciding to restrict the particular records, while only three records with management concerns–which fully overlapped with Executive Director concerns–were restricted.”

Overall, the Board has opposed the disclosure of “less than 1 percent of requested eligible Board documents,” according to the Bank document.

Non-Eligible Documents Face Higher Hurdle

The document does not quantify how many requests are made for documents that are not eligible for declassification, likely a larger number.

There are indications that such requests are usually unsuccessful because disclosure may “restricted” by exemptions in the AI Policy.

No changes were made affecting procedures for getting Board determinations on such requests, although this process also moves slowly. Obtaining Board records usually takes far longer than the 20 working days deadline laid out in the AI Policy. (See previous Freedominfo.org report on delays.) The Bank staff memo on streamlining doesn’t quantify the length of the delays for eligible documents, except to say “months.”

It took more than a year for the Board to consider two such requests for non-“eligible” document that were followed by FreedomInfo.org.

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 AI Policy.

Decision Document Withheld

The Board voted March 17, 2017, not to provide the policy document on streamlining to FreedomInfo.org, according to a Bank record of matters approved by circulation to Board members. The subsequent March 22 denial letter from the Bank invoked exemptions for “Corporate Administrative Matters” and “Deliberative Information.”

FreedomInfo.org’s March 27 appeal attempt was unavailing because the AI Policy forbids appeals of Board decisions. Appeals for other Bank documents are permitted, first to an internal Access to Information Committee and then to an outside panel of independent experts.

In an appeal letter filed anyway, FreedomInfo.org argued that the exemptions were misapplied and that parts of the documents should have been released.

Instead of redacting sensitive portions of documents, the Bank routinely adopts and all-or-nothing approach to document requests. “The redaction guidance policy, adopted by Bank staff administratively shortly after the approval of the AI policy by the Bank Board, violates the AI policy,” according to the FreedomInfo.org appeal. It continued, “The breadth of the redaction guidance stands in contradiction to the fundamental premise of AI policy: the ‘presumption of disclosure.’ By making redaction totally optional, the guidance empowers Bank staff to undercut the most important openness commitment promised in the Board’s AI policy and is inconsistent with its core underlying principles.”

The appeal was rejected June 29.

Bank Describes Streamlining

The streamlining change was described in a May Bank website posting. Additional information will be released, according to the June 29 Bank letter denying FreedomInfo.org’s appeal.

The Bank “intends to make publicly available a document that will comprehensively lay out all the procedures for the Board to review and decide on certain public access requests for certain Board papers and Board records,” states the letter.

The processing procedure as described publicly so far, says:

All requested Board records eligible for disclosure (e.g. minutes, transcripts, Executive Director statements) used to need formal Board actions.  Now, as a result of this processing improvement, Executive Directors, along with management, are given a period of time on which to comment on the disclosure of such records. Records with no comments are automatically disclosed, thus greatly simplifying internal procedures. Only records needing further review will be submitted for a full Board review and action. This streamlining is part of broader efforts to speed up the disclosure of requested Board records, and in response to feedback from external users.

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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