Access to Information: Is Mexico a Model for the Rest of the World?
Freedom of information laws – sometimes called access to information laws – are increasingly recognized as an important mechanism to empower citizens to keep a watchful eye over the actions of their government. Over the past decade more than 70 countries have passed access to information laws and another 50 or so are discussing and proposing such legislation. The laws create processes which permit citizens to request public information, such as how the government spent taxpayer money on the construction of a community hospital, or on the inauguration festivities for a newly elected official. But not all laws are designed or implemented alike. In some countries laws exist on paper, but government employees have not been trained as to how to release information to the public. In other countries employees have been trained, but there are no oversight agencies to enforce citizens’ requests if government agencies simply ignore them. It is important to define the best rules and implementation practices so that they can be adopted by other groups
In her 2008 BBC radio documentary series about freedom of information laws around the world Laura Trevelyan frequently pointed to Mexico as a model for other countries.1 David Banisar, the author of “Freedom of Information Around the World 2006: A Global Survey of Access to Government Information Law,” is quoted as saying:
Mexico has probably been the most ambitious country in the Americas, if not the entire world, regarding freedom of information in the last five years. They created a very large and powerful commission which had the political will to impose sanctions and to require the release of information in a very timely manner. And they created an electronic system to make it all very fast and efficient. All those combined I think have made Mexico a real model for the rest of the world.
But freedom of information activists here in Mexico — such as the organizations that make up the Collective for Transparency — tend to be more forthcoming about the challenges that prevent them from procuring public information from the government at the municipal, state, and federal levels. A recent article published in Milenio, for example, demonstrates the non-compliance of government officials in the state of Jalisco who have been presented with freedom of information requests by citizens. The Institute of Transparency and Public Information in Jalisco has brought 44 complaints against officials in the municipalities of Acatlán, Tala and Cihuatlán, but only one of these officials was detained for 48 hours and then released on bail. In the northern state of Coahuila the newspaper Vanguardia recently compared the information available on the municipality websites of Arteaga, Monclova, Parras, and Ramos Arizpe. In all four cases the data available on the websites do not conform with the minimum requirements set by Mexico’s Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Government Information. In Parras municipal financial information has not been updated since the beginning of 2009. In Ramos Arizpe the municipal website lists expenses, but does not include descriptions of how the money was spent. Such information is revealing, but it is hard to extrapolate from a study of just four municipal portals. Mexico has nearly 2,500 municipalities in total; as far as I am aware there is still no comprehensive comparative research that looks at website transparency indicators and their impact at the municipal level in Mexico.2
In part two of the BBC documentary “The Right to Know” Robert Hazell observes that once a government passes a freedom of information law it is not politically viable to take it away, as citizens soon realize the importance of requesting public information from their government. But many governments come to find access to information laws burdensome. The laws require training of government employees, financial resources to process requests and implement e-government services, and often end up revealing information that casts the government in bad light. Rather than removing the law completely Hazell has observed various patterns which limit the implementation and impact of such laws:
- Introduce or increase fees for freedom of information requests. This happened in both Ireland and Australia, which caused a reduction in the number of freedom of information requests filed by citizens.
- Reduce budget and staff of relevant agencies, which then delays processing times. This happened in the United States under the Bush administration, according to former president Jimmy Carter. For example, in the Department of Agriculture the wait time for freedom of information requests was lengthened from one month to two and a half years.
- Cite increased security concerns as reasons to not deliver public information as took place in the United States following 9/11 and is now taking place in Mexico with the fight against drug traffickers.3
Alasdair Roberts, the author of Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age, also notes that while we are observing a worldwide diffusion of access to information laws that empower citizens to hold government agencies accountable, we are also witnessing increased privatization. As public functions — such as the management of public water, natural parks, and transportation — are given over to private companies they are then shielded from the eyes of citizen watchdogs and civil society.
The lack of judicial reform is another obstacle to the effectiveness of access to information here in Mexico, according to observers like Article 19 and Fundar who recently distributed a press release revealing how decisions by Mexico’s Federal Tribunal of Fiscal and Administrative Justice take away autonomy from the Federal Institute of Transparency and Public Information. Others cite corruption in Mexico’s justice system to explain why high level politicians accused of corruption are rarely tried and almost never found guilty. The list of corrupt politicians in this country is long and often repeated. “Ulises Ruiz, Mario Marín, Luis Echeverría, Arturo Montiel, Elba Esther Gordillo, Marcial Maciel, César Nava, and Juan Camilo Mouriño” are just a few named by columnist Rafael Mendoza Castillo … and most taxi drivers who pass time by repeating complaints about Mexico’s political class. But for many Mexicans there is no greater example of corruption and impunity than former president Vicente Fox, the very man responsible for pushing forward Mexico’s visionary Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Government Information. In 2007 Fox gave an interview with lifestyle magazine Quien, which showed the ostentatious renovations to his San Cristobal ranch since he took power as president. Journalists dug up evidence that public funds were used in the renovations and that Fox’s wife, Marta Sahagun exchanged political favors for luxury watches and business opportunities for their children. Opposition Senator Ricardo Monreal brought a lawsuit against Fox for the allegations, but in 2009 the Supreme Court found Fox not guilty.4 Vicente Fox has also been accused of withholding official documents from his presidential term.
In addition to the challenge of judicial reform, the chaotic state of Mexico’s archives presents another challenge to the process of delivering public information to citizens in a timely and organized manner. I have heard anecdotes of government agencies delivering boxes of loose, irrelevant papers to NGO’s that have requested a single statistic or particular piece of information.
Last week Mexico’s Federal Institute of Access to Information convened its seventh annual National Transparency Week to bring national and international partners interested in the topic of transparency and access to information together to discuss the current state of transparency initiatives in Mexico and throughout the Americas. In recognition of the importance of well-organized archives to efficiently deliver public information to citizens, a plenary session focused on “information management as a pre-requisite for efficient administration and transparency.” Corrine Charette, CIO of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, observed that public information is expanding exponentially while citizens are increasingly becoming accustomed to seeking out that information, mainly through the use of online tools.
The following session continued this thread by looking at how governments are transitioning from paper to electronic archives in order to deliver public information over the internet. Speakers included Soledad Ferreiro Serrano, Director of Chile’s Library of National Congress; Carlos Alberto Zapata, Archivist at Colombia’s Universidad de la Salle, and Aurora Gómez Galvarriato Freer, General Director of Mexico’s National General Archive. I highly recommend Soledad Ferreiro’s presentation, “From Transparency to Action” as an example of how government bodies can combine well-managed public information with social media tools to encourage more citizen oversight and interaction with public information:
Ferreiro offered the audience three concrete recommendations:
- Create semantic web standards to store public information so that it is easily and uniformly searchable, and so that it can be re-used by citizens and programmers.
- Use scanners and OCR to scan, format, and publish as many paper documents in electronic format as possible.
- Commission more research about how citizens access and use public information in order to improve services.
Aurora Gómez Galvarriato Freer of Mexico’s National General Archive stressed that public archives are instrumental to both “short term and long term transparency.” Or, to put it in other words, well-managed public archives are necessary both for government transparency and for accurate representation of history and national identity. The focus of her job has increasingly been to think about how to develop mechanisms so that public archives are instruments to improve public management and bring about accountability. She then shows the audience of photographs of a large warehouse with piles of bound papers strewn all about and emphasizes that this is the reality of most public archives throughout Latin America. ‘Five years ago,’ says Gómez Galvarriato, ‘we were struggling to develop a better system to manage our paper archives. Today we are struggling to develop proper electronic archives. We are trying to turn our archive into an information system that constructs a democratic government.’
The National General Archive of Mexico is hardly alone in the struggle to transition large paper archives into electronic archives that will last – hopefully – for centuries and millennia. Last year Wayne Clough described the many consultations the Smithsonian Institution has realized in order to effectively digitize its collection of 137 million objects. Other experts have also been working on the challenge. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s School of Information have also been researching the use of semantic meta data for digital archives. Every year the Culturemondo network of museums and cultural portals meet to discuss web standards for digital archives and the use of social media to deliver public information to citizens. National public archives could also benefit from partaking in such discussions. Finally, it seems that Google’s mostly dormant philanthropic arm, Google.org, could play an important role in offering hardware and software assistance to public archives that are developing strategies to digitize their collections.
Gómez Galvarriato concludes her presentation on an optimistic note, pointing out that passage of a proposed “Federal Archive Law” could help provide public archives with the resources and decision making power to modernize their digital archives.
Even the strongest critics of Mexico’s implementation of the Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Government Information will readily admit that the country is headed in the right direction in terms of access to information and that much progress has been made. However, serious obstacles – such as those we have reviewed in this post – must be overcome for transparency and accountability to function as they would like. In addition to modernizing archives, adopting social media, reforming the justice system, and staying vigilant about the security classification of documents, researchers also point out that cultural differences have a strong impact on the transformative powers of access to information laws. In Mexico many citizens still do not feel that it is their right to seek public information from their politicians. In order to encourage a culture of transparency and citizen participation InfoDF hosts an annual essay contest which solicits essays from university students about transparency, access to information, protection of personal data, and accountability. At the international level, the Anti-Corruption Research Network is also holding an “anti-corruption research paper competition.”
There are other reasons to stay optimistic about the progress of the access to information movement in Mexico. Civil society organizations like Fundar and GESOC are learning how request, analyze, and present public information in ways that can reform policy and hold government officials and programs accountable. (See our case study of Fundar’s Subsidios al Campo. GESOC just recently released Hazlo Transparente, an online portal with public information related to social subsidy programs.) These organizations have also formed coalitions like the Collective for Transparency and Right to Know to advocate for better access to information laws and implementation. To stay up to date on the progress and challenges of access to information in Mexico we recommend that you subscribe to the latest news from both.
- I should emphasize that the BBC documentary series was produced in 2008. In the past two years India has increasingly received attention as a model for not only making information accessible, but acting on the information to bring about accountability.
- The most thorough research of municipal level online transparency comes from CIDE’s “Metrics of Transparency in Mexico” (exact date of report unknown) which compares the government portals of the capital cities of each of Mexico’s states. I recommend page 30 of the report to get a better idea of the importance and context of the indicators they focus on.
- Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez has written the report “Transparency and National Security,” which was financed and published by IFAI. He recognizes that the state is responsible to both protect the security of its citizens and their right to public information, and he proposes several legislative reforms to avoid the “over-classification” of documents protected by national security concerns.
- Two examples of high level politicians who have been found guilty of corruption are Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz and Ricardo Gutierrez, Mexico’s representative to Interpol. Ulises Ruiz is still governor of Oaxaca despite constant protest and Ricardo Guittierez is under house arrest as he awaits trial.