Is the transparency reform a true step forward?

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A decade has passed since the Federal Institute for Information Access (IFAI) was launched. A week ago, the organization announced that its system for information requests (INFOMEX) had received its millionth application. On the next Tuesday, November 26th, the Chamber of Deputies approved several Constitutional reforms that, among other things, would provide IFAI with a complete autonomy, in addition to broadening the number of subjects obliged to answer: all three Union Powers, political parties, trusts, unions as well as every entity that receives public resources. After a long and tiresome process, and while most of these changes were proposed by the then President-elect, Enrique Peña, Mexico would finally acquire a new transparency and accountability framework. Most civil organizations have hailed the approval of reforms and consider them to be progressive. The aforementioned is highlighted by a government that does not consider the issue to be a top priority, despite of the many statements of high-level officers who claim the contrary. How positive can these changes be?
In addition to the reforms approval, the current administration is complying with the so-called Alliance for an Open Government: an international initiative whose aim is to fulfill four essential objectives: improvement of public services, increase of public integrity, a more efficient resource allocation and an increase in accountability. At the end of last October, Mexico assumed the presidency of the aforementioned initiative and will hold on to it until 2015. In the work plan that the government presented for its tenure during the alliance, the participation of authorities, IFAI and the yet to be defined Secretariat of Public Functions – an entity that was abolished almost a year ago and is awaiting for its successor, the anti-corruption agency – in addition to several civil organizations. Although this commitment might be considered as one step ahead in transparency and accountability, the truth is that there are still many loose ends that these measures are simply promises meant to be broken. To further the issue, a greater transparency does not appear imply, if that turns out to be the ultimate goal, that accountability of public resources will increase or improve.
It should be taken into account how the original proposal, which was to be issued by Congress a few months ago, included several negative aspects, according to experts on the matter. The legislative draft that eventually passed was corrected – during that sui generis session held in the alternative venue of the Banamex Center – and has just been sent to local chambers this week. Nevertheless, even with the stipulated progress, there are still some issues to be considered and to be followed closely by society. A particularly relevant piece of information is contained in the statement added to the sixth Constitutional article, which goes as follows: “…law will determine the specific situations under which the inexistence of information will proceed”. Likewise, the order of legislating over general guidelines that will complement the Federal Law of Transparency and Access to Public Governance Information has been delayed for more than ten years. This is important due to local transparency bodies that have not been fully open and use the lack of ruling as an excuse to enclose important information.  Thereby, the “non-existent information” clause as well as the negligence in designing a general transparency law could be the points that would turn the good intentions of strengthening transparency and accountability into mere words within a document. There are plenty of examples of this.
From now on, it would be irresponsible to blame authorities of potential setbacks in the government’s transparency obligations. If transition to democracy has brought something is the increasingly critical role of civil society in building and implementing public policy. If” the bull is not taken by the horns” and society does not become a watcher of government actions, Mexican democracy will only “pay lip service”. This is the essential matter: how to balance the scarce means of actions that civil society has at its disposal along with the almost genetic tendency of authorities to consider information as private and, above all, how to transform information availability (increasing every time) into a counterweight to government. At the end of the day, the objective should be an improvement of public administration and it should never be overlooked that these tools help society achieve that.


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