UNESCO to Host Meeting on Measuring Success of Access to Information Laws

The gnarly subject of how to measure the implementation of access to information laws will be the subject a UN-sponsored meeting in Paris on Sept. 3.

Twenty-one invited participants are being asked to discuss both a “lite” approach to the assessment task and an “elaborated” method.

The overall goal is to determine whether governments are meeting the Strategic Development Goal on access to information (SDG 16.10), which asks that governments: “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” The “indicator” (SDG 16.10.2) states: “Number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information.”

The easer part to measure is whether nations have access to information laws, but the harder task is knowing if they are being implemented.  UNESCO is lead agency on the topic and is convening the meeting.  There are 34 participants, 13 from UNESCO and five from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Other invitees represent a variety of NGOs working on access to information.

UNESCO Sets Out “Lite” Template

The goals of the session are contained in a “concept note.” Also see the agenda and the list of participants.

The short series of diagnostic questions proposed by UNESCO is described in a “lite template draft.”  

A more extensive set of questions is put forward in an “elaborated template draft.”

The “lite” approach includes eight main questions, with a few subquestions, developed by UNESCO. It  asks whether there are “mechanisms for oversight of implementation,” whether a guide has been disseminated to citizens, how many requests were made and granted, and whether an annual report is issued. Governments also are asked to identify “gaps and challenges.”

The lite approach, UNESCO said in the concept note,  could be done used  by all UNESCO member states on a biannual basis.  The longer “elaborated” approach “aspires to be taken up by a more limited number of Member States, where and when there is appetite and resourcing for an in-depth review to be conducted.”

The “elaborated” concept was drafted by Toby Mendel, director of the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), for the UNESCO meeting. He suggested using the RTI Rating system (www.RTI-Rating.org) developed by CLD and Access Info Europe for assessing national ATI laws.  Mendel further proposed nine areas for reporting on implementation, with several dozen specific questions.

In addition to asking for the number of requests made and granted, the longer form asks whether assistance was offered, fees were charged, and time limits honored.

It also inquires whether an oversight body exists and how well is it funded. It also asks about the adequacy of proactive dissemination of government information and whether records management standards exist.

A Short History

The measurement challenge has been on the back burner for several years, but the time is approaching when governments will need to report on SG 16.10.2.

The goal was adopted in 2015, when access advocates managed, with considerable effort, to have the goal include not only the existence of access laws (ATI), but also implementing of them, as one of the 231 SDG indicators.

However, no conclusions have yet been reached on how to officially measure SDG 16.10.2.  In the absence of data points to provide the answers, the issue was officially designated as a “gray” area.

In early 2016,  UNESCO put forward some preliminary meta-data ideas. (See early March 2016 article in FreedomInfo.org and another in late March. )

On  Sept. 29, 2016, UNESCO held a meeting in Jakarta, attended by only a few ATI experts, to discuss measuring SDG 16.10. UNESCO laid out some general ground rules, including a limit of 10 questions and the goal of having “closed/objective” questions. (See FreedomInfo.org article.)

A wide variety of measurement methods are used in national assessments, conducted by some governments and civil society groups, but there has been no agreed-upon universal methodology developed for international comparative use.

An comprehensive assessment tool developed by the Carter Center has 60 indicators.

FOI Advocates Network, a consortium of activists which operates a listserve on freedom of information creating a template for the use of civil society organizations. (See October FreedomInfo.org article and May 2017 FreedomInfo.org article.) FOIANet’s system and a half dozen applications of it are described here.

UNESCO’s activity on measuring SDG 16.10.2 appeared to slacken in late 2016 and 2017. (See FreedomInfo.org article in December 2016.)

In several recent situations, UNESCO annoyed ATI activists. The agency did not hold consultations when it adopted its own access policy.  In addition, although Ghana has for more than a decade failed to pass an ATI law (despite promises by all recent presidents), UNESCO invited Ghana’s president to speak at the 2017 World Press Freedom Day. Further, UNESCO  picked Ghana to host World Press Freedom Day this May.

In July, some discussions on SDG 16.10.2 were held during the Open Government Partnership Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The UNESCO concept note for the Paris meeting states:

Measuring progress by means of 16.10.2 in a comprehensive and internationally comparable manner is a complex affair. But it is also an opportunity for reinforcing global and national reporting on the adoption and implementation of access-to-information commitments.

One outcome, UNESCO said,  is “to enrich planning for the [International Programme for the Development of Communication] (IPDC) which will hold a thematic debate on the subject at the 31st session of Council in November 2018.”