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Transparency and the right to information

What do we mean by transparency?

There is no commonly agreed definition of transparency, but there is a general consensus that it relates to the right to know and public access to information.

In a broad sense, transparency is about: how much access to internally-held information citizens are entitled to; the scope, accuracy and timeliness of this information; and what citizens (as "outsiders") can do if "insiders" are not sufficiently forthcoming in providing such access.

Excessive secrecy can undermine the quality of public decision-making and prevent citizens from checking the abuses of public power. This can have a corrosive effect on virtually all aspects of society and governance. Transparency -- in terms of both information disclosure and dissemination and access to decision-making -- is therefore very important as it better enables civil society to:

• hold government and/or key decision-makers to account;

• promote good governance;

• improve public policy and efficiency;

• combat corruption.

The benefits of transparency

1. Democracy, accountability and participation

Absence of, or inaccessibility to, information often creates a sense of disempowerment, mistrust and frustration.

The International Human Rights NGO Article 19 has described information as "the oxygen of democracy" while the UNDP Human Development Report 2002 describes informed debate as the "lifeblood of democracies."

Information by itself is not power, but it is an essential first step in the exercise of political and economic power. The public is only able to truly participate in the democratic process when they have information about the activities and policies of government, and when people can see what benefits and services they are entitled to and whether they are receiving what should be expected. Knowledge of what the state and other institutions do is fundamental to the power of people to hold them to account and improve the way in which they work. Absence of, or inaccessibility to, information often creates a sense of disempowerment, mistrust and frustration. On the other hand, access to relevant, up-to-date information can create a basis for natural exchange, allowing both official and the public to better access decisions taken and policies implemented.

2. Good governance

Transparency is also inextricably linked to governance, one definition of which is "a way of implementing policies through cooperation whereby representatives of the government, market and civil society participate in mixed public and private networks" (Bodegom et al.2008).

Transparency is an important principle of good governance since a degree of clarity and openness about how decisions are taken can help to build the capacity of the poor and/or marginalised to play a role in policy formulation and implementation; to influence these decisions that affect their lives; and to encourage decision- and policy-makers to exercise their power for the greater good.

3. Increased efficiency and effectiveness

Greater transparency can also bring benefits to government themselves, directly or indirectly. Therefore, transparency is also considered to be a key component of public policy and efficiency.

Studies have shown that in countries where information flows freely in both directions:

  • The knowledge that decisions and processes are open to public scrutiny can make government bodies work better, by imposing on them a constant discipline;
  • Government effectiveness is improved: even the most competent and honest decision-makers need feedback on how policies are working in practice;
  • Efficiency in the allocation of resources can also be improved: By ensuring that the benefits of growth are redistributed and not captured by the elite, transparency reforms can result in substantial net savers of public resources and improved socioeconomic and human development indicators.

4. A weapon against corruption

As noted in Transparency International's Global Corruption Report 2003, "information is perhaps the most important weapon against corruption."

Having access to information plays a key role in efforts to curb corruption and control its impact, since:

  • Free and guaranteed access to information enables citizens, the media and law enforcement agencies to use official records as a means to uncover cases of corruption and maladministration;
  • Increasing transparency increases the risk of detection of corrupt practices and this can act as a deterrent to future corruption.

This finds formal expression in the 2005 UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). So far 140 countries around the globe have signed and 95 nations have ratified the document which calls upon all state parties to ensure public transparency generally, openness in relation to civil servants and funding for electoral candidates, and transparency in public procurement and finances. Such measures aim to promote the prevention, detection and sanctioning of corruption.

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