Transparency provides a crucial platform to understand how our governments treat their most vulnerable citizens amid a public health crisis. In this post, I discuss why we should re-emphasize the importance for transparency laws, and how the current crisis may provide an opportunity for the openness community to rethink its priorities.
The unfolding public health crisis has fast become a stress-test for our societies, including our healthcare systems, economic resilience, crisis-response mechanisms, political stability, to name a few.
Increasingly, it is also becoming a stress-test for civil society groups that work to protect our fundamental rights.
As governments ramp up their surveillance measures, ostensibly in support of their efforts to slow down the virus, privacy activists across the globe are gearing up for a long-term fight. (Here’s a great reminder from investigative journalist Julia Angwin of why mass surveillance in post-crisis situations is not only invasive, it also doesn’t necessarily work.)
But what about the transparency movement? Should a historical moment like this warrant increased scrutiny of our governments? Or, to the contrary, should our elected officials be trusted and left in peace so they can move quickly?
The answer, as always, is that it’s complicated. It isn’t “either, or” — it’s both.
On the one hand, a crisis of this enormity should warrant more scrutiny, not less. The lack of visibility about the spread of the virus has already hindered coordinated response on far too many levels and people desperately need explanations for their leaders’ response strategies. As historian John M Barry puts it, “if trust [in governments] collapses, then it becomes everyone for themselves, and that’s the worst instinct in a crisis of this scale”. In other words, building trust through transparency may save our lives.
On the other hand, there are very real hurdles facing public officials in this unique situation. Moving rapidly to a remote way of working can cause a lot of stress and hiccups even for small and progressive teams, let alone larger bureaucracies. In many countries, the bulk of government records are kept on paper, and even tech-savvy administrations struggle to digitise all the information they hold.
As a response, multiple governments have restricted their transparency regimes. Brazil, for instance, introduced an executive decree: government officials are no longer obliged to answer any Freedom of Information (FOI) request, at least until the end of the year. In many countries where the state of emergency has been declared, public agencies are denying FOI requests (see this summary from FOI activist Toby McIntosh), claiming the central government is now in charge of all public communications. Others are answering only with significant delays or by limiting access to information available online.
And yet, the hardships of converting to digital is not a good enough reason to deny the public their right to information, especially not in the middle of a massive health crisis. Certain hiccups and delays are obviously unavoidable, but in the same way our students and teachers are expected to rapidly convert to e-schooling, our public officials should be expected to pick up the pace too. As my friend, Adam Földes from Transparency International puts it, if Italy can do it, anyone can.
Blaming transparency for hindering state action comes across as a Machiavellian move, an excuse to avoid scrutiny and accountability. In reality, those in government making important decisions about our lives are almost never the same people tasked with responding to FOI requests. Obviously, parliamentary oppositions or the independent media also play a crucial role in keeping decision-makers on their feet (right, Mr Orbán?), but the administrative burden of transparency normally lies within the average low-rank bureaucrats, not our cabinet members.
Momentum for the transparency movement
In jurisdictions where existing transparency laws and practices are in danger, it will be essential to re-emphasize why those laws were introduced in the first place. Reactive information disclosure, as seen with traditional FOI laws, plays a crucial role in the public’s efforts to gain access to closely-held data — our leaders’ decision-making failures, delays in crisis response, problematic spending priorities, and so on. Proactive data disclosure, on the other hand, can provide timely, regular and broad access to a larger set of important datasets. Ideally, we need a coexistence of both.
Looking further ahead, this crisis may also provide important momentum for the openness community to rethink its priorities.
The truth is, mainstream transparency efforts have always been a bit too removed from their original premise to advance human rights and social justice. We’ve seen a proliferation of initiatives too abstract to translate into meaningful measures of accountability, too technocratic in nature to represent any real change in how governments were treating their citizens.
This is especially true for open government initiatives, many of which had been fuelled by a ‘data explosion’ and a wave of excitement around new technologies, very often lacking a clear, or real, theory of change. To put it bluntly, the community got a bit carried away by the ‘how’ instead of the ‘what’ or the ‘why’. (This piece passionately describes the reasons for collective annoyance with the ‘openness’ agenda.)
The questions to ask
So where do we go from here?
Let’s take public resources, for instance. Having access to the reallocation of public resources is not only a measure of a state’s accountability and transparency. It is also a measure of how far a government is willing to include, serve and support all its citizens — as my colleague, Nthabi Mokonea reminds us. This is especially true in times of crisis, when our solidarity tends to focus on those whose pain is more visible to us.
Understanding what emergency measures are being taken to prevent, control and contain the virus — or to provide economic stimuli to certain industries — are obviously crucial. However, looking beyond those immediate measures, we may also need to start asking questions about how our governments are treating their most vulnerable members — in fact, I think we have a moral obligation to do so. Transparency laws provide a great platform for that.
So here are some of examples that transparency activists could be asking now:
- What metrics and algorithms are being used to determine who gets tested (and who doesn’t)?
- How are public resources reallocated to protect the most vulnerable members of our societies — people without stable living conditions, children who rely on their schools for food, to name a few?
- What measures are taken to ensure that the conditions in prisons and refugee camps don’t deteriorate rapidly?
- How will important information about the reallocation of resources reach people without access to mass media or the Internet?
The list is obviously not exhaustive, but you get my point.
Access to information may be a necessary first step in creating robust democracies, but it is not at all a sufficient step to create just societies. Moments like this underscore that we are “only as safe — or empowered — as the most vulnerable among us”, as Leila Billing reminds us.
The information we demand from our governments, the stories we prioritise to investigate and share, will not only test our leaders’ promises, they will reflect on our very commitments to justice and solidarity as activists.