We’re No. 7! We’re No. 7!

I want a big foam finger.

Fabled Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” If that is in fact the case, then the world as a whole is a pretty grimy place, according to the latest edition of the Open Budget Survey.

The biennial report, published by the International Budget Partnership, tracks government spending transparency across the globe. Of the 100 countries assessed in the survey, 77 “fail to meet basic standards of budget transparency,” with the average score a lowly 43 out of 100 points…

the U.S. comes in seventh in the Open Budget Survey’s rankings. As the Washington Post’s Wonkblog explains, “overall, the document is a pretty strong vote of confidence in the federal government’s transparency efforts.”The Wonkblog goes on to say that the U.S. gets knocked down for its lack of a pre-budget statement, lack of details in reviews of prior expenditures and, most importantly, a total lack of a “citizens budget,” which the IBP explains as being “accessible, nontechnical presentations of budget information.”

The U.S. and its neighbors scored well overall, as the Guardian explains, with western Europe and the U.S. averaging75 out of 100 points, while the Middle East and North Africa managed to average just 18 out of 100 points. In a race to the bottom, Qatar, Myanmar and Equatorial Guinea rank dead last.

The IBP gathers its data through a series of 125 questions answered by independent researchers in 100 countries, which account for a population of 6.1 billion, or 89 percent of the world’s population in 2010. And while the survey paints a rather dismal portrait of government transparency in general, IBP states that the study has seen “steady, albeit incremental, progress over the four rounds of the survey since 2006,” with the average score of 40 countries with comparable data sets jumping from 47 out of 100 when the survey began up to 57 out of 100 in 2012.

An interesting take on transparency in China…

Media reports of the worst air pollution ever recorded in China’s capital Beijing, over the weekend of January 12-13 2013, have added urgency to a question that shadows China’s economic rise: how will the evolving Chinese state balance economic growth with increasing social pressure for better environmental management?

Yeling Tan offers clues to possible answers in her article  “Transparency without Democracy: The Unexpected Effects of China’s Environmental Disclosure Policy,” recently published by Governance. Conventional wisdom, said Tan in an interview, “is that transparency, accountability and democracy all move in the same direction.”

Her article re-examines the relationship among these concepts in the non-democratic context of contemporary China, and highlights some unexpected routes to improved outcomes, like pressure from multinational corporations (MNCs) that now use pollution data to monitor their Chinese suppliers.

“Information disclosure by itself won’t automatically lead to change,” said Tan, a doctoral candidate in the public policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In the article she analyzes the complex pathways through which the Chinese government’s 2008 Open Environmental Information (OEI) measures have impacted stakeholders such as citizens, businesses, and non-government organizations (NGOs) and MNCs.

Tan’s research for the article included three trips to China from 2009-2011, during which she interviewed academics, government officials, representatives of environmental NGOs and journalists to build a detailed picture of how the OEI regulations are being implemented in various cities and townships.

Watch Heather Brooke’s TED Talk on the Parliament FOI Story…

OK, full disclosure: I am HUGE fan of Heather, having chatted with her often through the years about FOI stuff, so I HAD to pass this along!

If this doesn’t get you pumped up about the power of FOI to change the world, I don’t know what will! And best of all, you can then read an excerpt from her new book, The Revolution Will Be Digitised…

 

 

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The academic FOI request blowback makes its way to the UK…

File this one under “it was bound to happen…”

A cross-party group of MPs has recommended a change in the law to prevent unpublished research data being released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The exemption should be introduced to “protect ongoing research”, the Justice Committee said in a report, Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, that was released yesterday.

Universities UK has been campaigning for such a change to the act on a number of grounds.

It has argued that researchers could use information gained from an FoI request to “scoop” data from rivals and beat them to publication, undermining the incentive for research.

It has also warned that businesses could use the act to access valuable research being conducted by commercial competitors and universities before patents can be taken out.

UUK has also raised the prospect that data could be released and then misinterpreted and misused by the public before it has been subjected to scholarly analysis and peer review.

Scotland has a specific exemption for pre-publication research.

Paul Gibbons, a Freedom of Information campaigner and author of the FOI Man blog, said that he thought there was “no real need” for a new exemption because “existing exemptions could be utilised” to protect research. Nevertheless, he added: “I can’t see it doing much harm.”

From Canada, another FOI dispute on campus…

From our neighbors to the north comes a fresh academic freedom/FOI dispute:

Amir Attaran speaking at an H1N1 conference at...

Amir Attaran speaking at an H1N1 conference at the University of Ottawa/ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A prominent University of Ottawa law professor has launched a grievance against a school administrator after she agreed to release documents related to his research under the province’s freedom of information law.

Professor Amir Attaran is outraged that the university would so readily abandon its defence of academic freedom.

Diane Davidson, the university’s vice-president of governance, told Attaran last week that the school had decided to accede to an order from the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner to produce the professor’s research-related expense reports.

Davidson refused Attaran’s demand that the university contest the production order in court.

“The defence of confidential information, within the limits prescribed by law, is a cornerstone of the academic freedom to conduct research,” Attaran writes in his notice of grievance. “It is disappointing that Ms. Davidson has chosen not to protect that freedom to the utmost.”

In an interview Wednesday, Attaran said the unredacted documents being released contained his credit card number, his home address and the address of his parents.

“It’s quite disgusting,” he said.

Davidson did not return a phone call Wednesday requesting comment.

Attaran has been a thorn in the side of the federal Conservative government for years, waging a series of successful court battles to gain access to documents related to the treatment of Afghan detainees.

Last week, he won another round in that fight in the Supreme Court of Canada.

His work, which relies on federal access to information legislation, has put him in the national spotlight.

It has also made him the subject of information requests, presumably from political enemies hoping to damage his credibility.

University administrators, he said, had in the past protected him from requests for performance evaluations and expense reports.

In January, however, a series of sweeping information requests were filed. One demanded the subject line of all of his emails addressed to Parliament, the CBC or the Liberal Party.

Another requested all documents about him releasable under the freedom of information law.

Attaran believes the requests were politically motivated.

He wants the university to comply with the provincial access to information law in his case. But that law, Attaran said, includes an “exclusion” that places all records associated with a university professor’s research outside the reach of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

What’s more, he said, the law gives administrators the right to demand that any examination of records by the commissioner be done at the university.

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Fabulous piece on global transparency, and US laggards…

Susan Crawford is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Cardozo School of Law. She’s provided a nice look at global transparency movements here, as well as the lack of momentum in the United States:

When Brazil’s government buys anything from fighter jets to a fancy villa, details are available online within 24 hours. Such disclosures are a powerful way to combat corruption, and are a model for official openness that could inspire other nations.

Brazil’s online portal started in 2004. Among its contents: information about Brazilian outlays in advance of hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. The site includes an online channel for whistleblower complaints.

Because corruption is a major problem in Brazil, timely release of spending data, including daily information about the use of government credit cards, is designed to help the media and opposition politicians in Brazil reveal crooked behavior. If a minister buys a truckload of wine with her government card, or pays off a cousin, someone will notice.

Enthusiasm for open government is taking hold not just in Brazil, but in countries such asKenyaIndia and the U.K. Kenya last month became the first sub-Saharan African country to launch a government-data portal. India is a beehive of activity; it has initiated ambitious plans for providing public services with the help of mobile phones in rural areas and for electronic citizen engagement in government generally.

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