Progressing access to information: global platforms available to civil society organizations

8 December 2014, by Maureen Kariuki.

Access to Information remains a key priority for civil society working towards the realisation of open and participatory governance, and while progress may be slow and in many cases frustrating, innovative global platforms and ambitious frameworks are providing civil society organisations around the world with opportunities to push their governments into passing access to information legislation.

Access to information is the cornerstone of open governance. This was underscored at the second Open Government Partnership (OGP) Americas regional meeting, which was held from the 17–19 November 2014 in San Jose, Costa Rica.[1] Access to information again emerged as a dominant theme among the more than 200 participants representing government, civil society, private sector and academia from across the Americas.

Access to Information enables citizens to participate in the governance of their countries and detect and expose corruption in government processes such as budgeting and procurement. Since the 1990s, encouraging and progressive developments have been made in the advancement of access to information globally. Today, freedom of information is recognised and enshrined in the constitutions of various countries the world over. However, this progress has not been without its drawbacks. Legislation, policies and institutions that would operationalise and entrench access to information in many countries across the globe remain either missing or ineffective.

Despite these drawbacks, however, civil society organisations are successfully leveraging the platforms available to them to push for access to information in their countries. Both the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and the OGP recognise access to information as fundamental in preventing corruption and promoting open government.

The UNCAC, under its articles 5, 9, 10 and 13, calls for states parties to promote public and civic engagement in accountability processes and emphasises access to information as critical in the fight against corruption. Under the umbrella of the UNCAC Coalition, since 2006 over 350 CSOs have been making submissions to the Conference of State Parties (COSP) and relevant working groups to improve the implementation of the access to information provisions by state parties.

Civil society organisations have also leveraged the opportunity provided by the UNCAC review mechanism to engage with governments on the implementation of provisions related to access to information, among others. They have sometimes done this by producing parallel reports to supplement their governments’ official review reports.

Unfortunately, the civil society reports may not be submitted to the UNCAC Independent Review Group (IRG), whose mandate it is to oversee the UNCAC review process. But once a year, CSOs are able to make statements and meet their government representatives at the IRG briefing for civil society organisations – an event organised on the margins of the IRG’s annual reporting meeting to the COSP.[2] Groups have successfully used these occasions to persuade governments to publish their full UNCAC review reports, which is subject to the government’s discretion and thus far 34 of the full reports have been published out of a total of 76 reviews completed.

Civil society organisations are also using the platform provided by the OGP to further reform access to information in their countries. One of the four criteria used to consider a country’s eligibility to join the OGP is access to information.[3] In October 2013, after years of civil society activism, Sierra Leone, which was seeking membership in the OGP, finally passed a robust right to information law, in order to become eligible to join.

Beyond the eligibility criteria, however, is the opportunity OGP provides for civil society to engage with government in the creation of national action plans that contain concrete commitments on, among other things, the advancement of access to information. Encouraging results have been observed from some of these dialogues, and governments around the world are increasingly committing, through their OGP national action plans, to passing and strengthening their access to information laws.

In 2014, following a commitment in its first action plan and subsequent extensive consultation with civil society, Colombia passed an access to information law. Brazil too, a founding member of the OGP, passed its access to information law in 2012 following its commitment to do so as contained in its action plan. Ambitious commitments related to access to information continue to be made by member countries: Croatia has committed to improving the legislative framework and implementation of its Freedom of Information Act; Honduras will include an electronic system for citizens to submit freedom of information requests; and Ireland will reform its Freedom of Information Act to extend the law to all public agencies to remove up-front application fees.

These few success stories demonstrate the potential for frameworks and initiatives such as the UNCAC and the OGP to make meaningful headway in access to information progress globally. The UNCAC provides civil society with the opportunity to monitor and report on the progress made by governments in the implementation of the convention. The OGP provides a guaranteed seat at the table for civil society to jointly with government make concrete, ambitious commitments for reform; and independently monitor the progress being made in the implementation of these commitments.

Without necessarily guaranteeing success or rapid progress, they are useful vehicles for anti-corruption activists and open government champions seeking to promote and embed more transparent, accountable and participatory governance in their countries and should be used by civil society strategically and effectively towards this end.

About Maureen Kariuki

Maureen Kariuki is the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Civil Society Coordinator for Africa and the Middle East.

  1. OGP is a multilateral initiative that seeks to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.
  2. While making use of this particular platform the UNCAC Coalition, continues to advocate for civil society inclusion as observers in the IRG meeting alongside signatory states and intergovernmental organisations.
  3. A country seeking to join the OGP needs 75% of the maximum score available on four eligibility criteria: fiscal transparency, access to information, public officials asset disclosure and citizen engagement.