Useful Versus Useless Transparency
By Anne-Sophie Lambert, Accountability Lab Resident
Transparency has frequently been cited as a cure to corruption. Freedom of information has been declared a universal human right, with over 70 countries adopting it as such to date.
However, as Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be measured and not everything that can be measured counts.” As more and more governments are becoming transparent, we must consider the usefulness of each country’s approach. After all, what purpose do public records serve if the data lacks clear organization and means of comparison? Or if it remains filed away in a remote office?
Technology has significantly expanded the ways in which information can be made transparent and accessible, yet simply upgrading to online solutions is not always optimal. For example, some scholars have argued that the digitization of land records in Bangalore further marginalized those who were too poor to afford internet access or the training necessary to interpret technical data sets. In order to underpin democracy and social justice, transparency initiatives must include strategies for widespread dissemination of information and efforts to accommodate individuals with varying levels of linguistic, financial and computer literacy.
Moreover, greater transparency in itself does not lead to improved governance, especially if the relevant tools to utilize information are weak or absent. In 2005, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission conducted a series of audits revealing that the state had lost more than $400 billion of oil revenue to corruption, for example. But public knowledge of this appalling record of misconduct did little to empower citizens to hold power-holders accountable for their actions. A proposed Freedom of Information Act stalled in the legislature for over a decade, and even after it was finally passed last year, individual requests for further information on issues of accountability are continually delayed or ignored. In this way, a lack of mechanisms for implementation and enforcement limits the usefulness transparent information.
The most useful information flows allow data and knowledge to travel both upwards and downwards- moving from simple transparency to accountability. Effective governance systems provide comprehensible data on government performance coupled with public feedback on the effectiveness of that performance and on the procedures used to measure it. In Nigeria, the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) demonstrates a more top-down approach in which the Nigerian government is beginning to build a framework for transparency in the extractive industries infamous for institutionalized corruption. The real success of NEITI is not marked by the unprecedented mandate to report payments and receipts though; rather, the information gathered through NEITI is useful because it has led to active, bottom-up civil society engagement and the government’s recovery of $443 million of the $2.6 billion owed as state revenue by oil and gas companies.
In Brazil, the Gabinete Digital (Digital Office- which we wrote about here) is a direct channel from the Governor’s Office to citizens and civil society groups in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. Through the system, the Governor can ask citizens about critical issues and gather feedback, and citizens can also ask the administration questions about specific themes. Additionally, the tool is used for online public hearings and was used for the first digital assembly in Brazil- on healthcare- which over 30 days involved 60,000 people and set 50 priorities for the government. Gabinete Digital is allowing the government to generate legitimacy and improve service delivery on a continual basis through both transparency and accountability.
Information is not the end goal, but rather a foundation upon which accountability can be built. When citizens are given the tools to participate in transparent, responsive processes, these can serve as a powerful check on the abuse of power.