New Report Explores Role of Digital Portals in Improving Right to Information Regimes

Arne Strand, Director,U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre
Arne Strand, Director,U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre

The U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre in partnership with the Latin American Initiative for Open Data (ILDA), has published a new report, “Exploring the role of digital civil society portals in improving Right to Information regimes”, which analyses right to information (RTI) online portals developed by civil society organisations in five countries with different traditions and at different stages of implementation of the RTI legislation.

Written by Dr. Silvana Fumega, the Research and Policy Lead of ILDA, and Dr. Fabrizio Scrollini, the Executive Coordinator of ILDA, who is also a member of the Open Data Network for Development (OD4D); Chairman of DATA Uruguay, a civic association based in Uruguay that builds civic technology to promote human development; and co-founder of Abrelatam and the Open Data Regional Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, the report highlights the fact that without such portals, some of the positive changes in the right to information regimes would not have materialised.

The 44-page report notes that over the past two decades, advances in information and communication technology (ICTs) have transformed the way people access and interact with the information that governments produce and hold and that the development of online digital portals to enable users to submit requests for information, under Right to Information laws, is one of many examples of such changes.

According to the report, ICTs help to increase the efficiency of the publication process as well as the way requesters access information while in the digital era, transparency may well be what people see on their computer screens.

It said, however, that governments did not always develop technology to facilitate such processes on their own and that in many cases when they did, they were not the first to do so.

For instance, the report noted, in 2006, Phil Rodgers and Francis Irving developed the basics of the website whatdotheyknow, a simple idea with a piece of software that would allow citizens to issue right to information requests.

Subsequently, it said, in 2008, the British nongovernmental organization, My Society, pushed forward the idea and fully developed the website, an approach that was novel for several reasons, including the fact that it did not require government’s consent, and was developed based on free-software.

The report explained that the rationale behind the project was that citizens would ask information through a single portal and the government would reply, eliminating the need to know the email address of each mandated agency.

It quoted My Society Research Unit as indicating that between 15 and 20 per cent of British right to information requests are currently issued through the My Society portal.

The report said following the steps of that initial development, an emerging group of civil society actors have deployed right to information portals in at least 22 countries, allowing citizens to make requests online and that in these cases, civil society organisations and individual developers have not asked for government permission to set up such portals.

The report observed that such civil society organisations and individual developers have built the websites, enabled by open/free source software, and have targeted government email addresses.

It said such portals allow users to not only issue requests by accessing just one site, no matter the agency or topic, but also without having to search for email addresses while the portals also usually present a feature of proactive disclosure of all responses in order to improve the efficiency of the procedure allowing users to monitor requests, as well as setting up a knowledge repository where all requests are centralised.

But the report stressed that as more portals are set up, a pertinent question for all the portals relates to the relationship between them and the actual improvement of right to information regimes, as well as the dissemination of the exercise of the right to access information.

The report analyses right to information online portals developed by civil society organisations in five countries, namely Chile, Germany, New Zealand, Spain and Uruguay, which have different traditions and are at different stages of implementation of the right to information law. The countries were reportedly selected to explore the effect, if any, of right to information portals on right to information regimes.

It provides an overview on how actors and technologies evolved at the global level and offers a set of basic definitions and proceeds to analyse each of the cases following a comparative framework that the authors developed.

The report then discussed the role of requesters, government and enforcement institutions, and provides a set of recommendations to donors and other organisations, reportedly based on their cases and the available literature.

It argued that portals play a meaningful, but limited, role in improving right to regimes and that the sustainability of such initiatives requires new ways of understanding the role of civic tech organisations in right to information regimes.

The report draws attention to the fact that without these portals, some of the positive changes in the right to information regimes would not have materialised.