A recent article from the New York Times celebrated the successes of India’s Right to Information Laws that have uplifted impoverished states such as Jharkand from rampant corruption. The article argued that the laws are beginning to uproot the feudalistic nepotism and bureaucratic tradition that had become synonymous with India’s rural landscape. Residents were guaranteed access to inspect the state’s distribution of funds for welfare projects whilst penalties were simultaneously levied on bureaucrats for withholding information. Improvements in public access to information in India have attracted attention and have arguably helped fuel information rights in the other countries in the developing world, though many countries continue to lag behind.
Global Integrity’s national-level Integrity Indicators assess Public Access to Information by first considering the legal framework the country has in place. For instance, the indicators probe whether citizens are entitled to access government information and whether a formal mechanism exists through which citizens can exercise that right. Points are similarly awarded for the prevalence of a legal framework to guarantee an appeal when access to a basic government record has been denied. Other indicators assess the effectiveness and implementation of those laws and mechanisms in practice.
While the Indian experience is a relatively positive one in the context of access to information, citizens in other countries are not as fortunate. Algeria, Sierra Leone, and Vietnam performed poorly on our 2009 indicators, while countries such as South Korea and Mexico had strong results.
Sierra Leone has no explicit law guaranteeing access to government information, although a number of new laws seem to provide an opportunity for citizens to access information at the local council level. Similarly, no such laws or mechanisms exist for making appeals of rejected information requests at the national level, but local councils must provide information on its activities to citizens (Local Government Act 2004).The Sierra Leone Encyclopedia, designed to facilitate information sharing and meant to provide a wide range of relevant development information on Sierra Leone, has helped facilitate useful responses to government information requests in some cases.
Mexico, on the other hand, has a strong record on Public Access to Information, earning a score of 92 on the Global Integrity scorecard for that sub-category. The high score can be partly attributed to the Mexican Congress’s approval of a 2007 amendment that now requires all levels of government to standardize their regulations and computer systems to allow public access to government records from anywhere in the country. The system also benefits from prompt responses and a low processing cost; in most cases citizens are not required to pay any additional fees beyond the associated photocopying and mailing costs to submit their requests.
While India’s Right To Information laws have received widespread acclaim in the media for ousting bureaucrats in what appears to be a revolution in local government accountability, less conspicuous reforms such as the low costs associated with processing requests in Mexico deserve equal attention. In the day-to-day implementation of an effective access to information regime, it’s often the small things that make a difference.
— Shahryar Malik
— Image: street typists (cc by/sa/nc) by JnM_RTW