A new report titled “What information do citizens want? Evidence from one million information requests in Mexico” written by Daniel Berliner, Benjamin E. Bagozzi and Brian Palmer-Rubin shows that given functioning access-to-information institutions, citizens in a transitional democracy tend to demand information relevant to public accountability.
The report specifically analyzes all Access to Information (ATI) requests made to the federal Mexican government from 2003 to 2015. The electronic request system launched by the Mexican government in June of 2003, made the analyses easy. Each of the federal ATI requests from June 2003 to August 2015 made publicly available in CSV format was downloaded on government’s INFOMEX website, along with a range of associated metadata. The files include texts of each request, links to any associated attachments, and other relevant metadata including target agency, date, requester municipality, and date and nature of the official response.
However, these data include no information on the actual users, their identities or demographics, or which requests were filed by the same user. The annual number of public information requests, among full years of the data, ranged from 34,702 in 2004 to a peak of 116,615 in 2014. This increase in request volume itself suggests that citizens see value in the institution.
An inductive approach was taken to characterize Mexico’s ATI environment, using unsupervised topic modeling to categorize all one million-plus requests into twenty topics, based on the text of the requests themselves. These include many topics of clear public relevance, including the military, police, and crime; the oil and energy sectors; budgets and spending; the environment and land use; qualifications of government employees; and compliance information about public procurement.
Other topics, however, appear more suited to private or micro-political uses, such as seeking access to government benefits, services, or contracts.
In conclusion, the results of the approach used demonstrate that citizens request more for information that is relevant to public accountability when provided with the right mechanism.
This suggests that, given a reasonably well-functioning ATI regime with low barriers to use, demand for information is not the key obstacle to successful information-based accountability.
However, the report also highlights that these accountability-seeking uses exist alongside a substantial focus on information for private uses as well. Thus, an important topic for future research is to explore whether accountability-seeking and private demands for government information tends to complement each other, or crowd each other out, in terms of the ability and the willingness of officials to respond in positive ways.
Please visit https://bit.ly/2ztDj2o to read the full text of the report.